Progress on Trucks and Tolling?

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Politico reported last week (Feb. 8th) on an interview with Chris Spear, the relatively new CEO of the American Trucking Associations. Spear told Politico that ATA sees room to compromise on toll finance—for newly constructed roads or bridges. But he drew the line on tolls for “existing roads that we’ve already paid for.” The previous week, House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee chairman, Rep Bill Shuster (R, PA), was quoted in the Washington Post along similar lines—that tolling “existing” Interstate highways is “a non-starter.”

As one who has lambasted some toll agencies for diverting toll revenues to canals, economic development, and transit, I agree with the underlying point made by Spear and Shuster. Charging a second time for infrastructure that users have already paid for is unfair and should not be allowed.

But what about when a highway or bridge wears out and needs replacing? And what if all the existing highway revenue (from fuel taxes) is already spoken for by the numerous programs embedded in the overall federal highway and transit program, each with its own vociferous constituency that will work very hard to make sure that any increase in fuel taxes is shared among all those programs? That is the actual situation we face today. There is no source of funding for the $1 trillion or more it will take to replace and modernize our aging Interstate highways.

So I invite my friends in the trucking industry to consider the use of toll finance solely to replace worn-out infrastructure on the most-vital corridors their business depends on: Interstate highways. The Interstates were designed and constructed with a 50-year design life, if properly maintained. Many corridors are already past their expiration date, and most of the rest will reach that status over the next two decades. Moreover, the trucking industry complains (justifiably) about the top 100 truck bottlenecks around the country—nearly all at interchanges on urban Interstates. And many of the most important Interstates for trucking lack enough lanes to handle the truck traffic FHWA projects between now and 2040—they are good candidates for dedicated truck lanes.

All these reasons would make it sensible for the trucking industry to support a carefully limited expansion of the current federal pilot program for toll-financed Interstate reconstruction/replacement. As laid out in the 2015 Reason study, “Truck-Friendly Tolls for 21st Century Interstates,” federal restrictions should include:

  • All-electronic tolling (no toll booths);
  • Toll rates limited to covering the capital and operating costs of the replacement Interstates (no revenue diversion);
  • State legislation to guarantee no revenue diversion;
  • Rebates of fuel taxes for the miles driven on toll-financed replacements (no “double taxation”); and,
  • Tolling to begin only after the replacement facility is finished and open to traffic.

On February 1st, the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates send a letter to all members of the House T&I Committee, arguing against any expansion of tolling and for repealing the three-state pilot program. Interestingly, while every state trucking association and ATA all signed, as did various truck-stop groups, conspicuously absent were most of the major trucking companies themselves, including Fedex and UPS. Those two firms, along with major trucker YRC Worldwide, various shipper groups, the U.S. Chamber, and the National Association of Manufacturers recently created a coalition called Americans for Modern Transportation. Let’s hope that this group is willing to think outside the box about how we are actually going to pay for and implement a 21st century Interstate highway system.

(This article first ran in the February 2017 issue of Surface Transportation Innovations)

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About Bob Poole

Bob Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the previous four presidential administrations on transportation and policy issues.

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