Obama Administration’s Interstate Plans Draw Fire

InterstatePlans

By Matthew Wrobel, Foley Services

An Obama Administration plan that would allow states to toll existing interstate highways has drawn fire from the transportation industry. If enacted, the plan would be a major change to a policy that has existed since the interstate system was created by President Eisenhower in 1956.

The plan was barely out the door a few weeks ago before swift and strong opposition was levied against it. The Obama administration proposal, to allow tolling on existing interstate, caused waves with trucking organizations such as the American Trucking Associations and the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association.

The Plan

Part of the Department of Transportation’s four-year transportation bill, the plan would allow the individual states to toll existing interstate highways in their jurisdiction. If enacted, this would be a major reversal of policy. In the past, tolling the interstates was all but impossible. Most states that tried it were quickly shot down. Only new interstates and highways that were tolled and pre-existed the Interstate system were allowed. The only exception was if a previously tolled highway, which had removed tolls, wanted to go back to tolling.

The Problem

The Obama Administration made this proposal in an effort to fill the Highway Trust Fund, the national bank account used for funding the maintenance of the interstate system. Essentially, the fund is drained (or, for the short periods when it has been allotted money, is about to be drained). The cost of maintaining, expanding and rebuilding highway infrastructure has increased to beyond the fund’s budget.

Historically, the Highway Trust Fund was filled with money from the Federal Gas Tax. That, however, has remained unchanged since 1993 – a political ‘third-rail’ that no-one is willing to touch. As anyone who has been paying the bills in the last 20 years can tell you, a dollar in 1993 bought a lot more than it does in 2014.

The Opposition

As was probably predictable, the transportation industry was up in arms about the proposal and quickly mobilized against it. Transportation, particularly trucking, has historically borne the brunt of any tolls. Tolls in urban areas are typically very heavily weighted against trucks. For example, crossing the George Washington Bridge in New York City will cost you north of $100 if you pay cash. Compare that to $13 for car drivers.

A key concern of many drivers, both in the industry and out, is that in some states, they will end up being taxed twice. In Connecticut, for example, where the tolls were removed in the 1980s after a series of accidents, roads are maintained with a state gas tax. Almost since the moment the tolls were removed, there have been proposals to put them back. As many critics have noted, those proposals rarely, if ever, include rolling back the tax. The same situation is true in a number of other states.

“Slapping tolls on existing toll-free highways is highway robbery and double taxation,” said Terri Hall, director of Texans United for Reforms and Freedoms and another group, Texans for Toll-Free Highways. “We’re not going to stand idly by and let the president steal our freeways and impose such a confiscatory tax scheme without our consent.”

ATA was even more succinct in its criticism of the plan. “Any proposal that moves away from a user-fee funded transportation system is not going to be acceptable to the American trucking industry, period,” ATA President Bill Graves stated.

It should be noted that the Federal government already has a pilot program in place that allows a limited amount of tolling on existing roads. So far, no proposal has been enacted as local and political pressure quickly squashed the idea.

The administration’s plan has been forwarded to Congress, who will have its own versions of the law in the coming months.

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