WASHINGTON – Congress should pass legislation allowing states to toll interstate highways within their borders because that’s some of the lowest-hanging fruit in the otherwise difficult-to-move Trump infrastructure plan, experts said Tuesday.
Increased tolling was a repeated theme during a panel discussion webcast by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association as part of Infrastructure Week. AASHTO chief operating officer Jim Tymon, IBTTA executive director Pat Jones, and American Enterprise Institute scholar Weifeng Zhong discussed interstate tolling as well as prospects for Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan.
Tolling interstate highways is part of Trump’s infrastructure plan and had been supported by the Obama administration as well. Current law generally prohibits tolling the interstates, except for some sections given authority under a pilot program and carve-outs for high-occupancy managed toll lanes.
Tolling is one solution for obtaining revenue for roads because the gasoline tax-fueled Highway Trust Fund that has historically paid for federal roadways has been spending more than it brings in for a decade now. With the federal gas tax stuck at 18.4 cents since 1993 and increases to it considered a political non-starter on Capitol Hill, the fund could become insolvent within three years.
Zhong said that lifting the ban on interstate tolling makes sense. He pointed out that giving states the authority to toll the highways would not necessarily mean that they all would.
“States do not have to do that, obviously, but it would be an option for them,” Zhong said.
Research indicates that many people are opposed to tolling initially, but often wind up supporting the tolls once they are implemented, he said. Tolling the interstates could follow that demonstrated trend, he added.
“I think it would turn out better than the American people might think,” said Zhong.
Tymon said that AASHTO and other stakeholders had hoped that Trump’s infrastructure plan would address the Highway Trust Fund funding crisis, but were disappointed in that respect. The plan instead called for leveraging local and private dollars as well as the previously mentioned interstate tolling. Tymon said that state and local governments already do the bulk of the investing in surface transportation projects nationwide, and agreed that allowing states to toll their sections of the interstate highway system would be a smart policy choice.
“It is an option that states should have,” Tymon said.
There is little chance that the majority of Trump’s infrastructure plan could be packaged together and passed through Congress, but that it could be done piecemeal, he said. Lawmakers have made significant progress on a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill and have expressed interest in passing a Water Resources Development Act this year, Tymon said. Either or both of those bills could include aspects of the Trump plan when all is said and done.
“We’re optimistic about the chances of something getting done in the next year in Congress,” Tymon said.
Jones said he also supports tolling the interstates and predicted continued growth in tolling and managed lanes nationwide.
“We need a national vision to revitalize infrastructure for all Americans,” he said. “This is what infrastructure week is all about.”