Obama Highway Plan Paves Way For New Tolls Nationwide

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Peter Fricke Contributor
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A little-noted provision of President Obama’s highway funding proposal would lift the federal prohibition against states imposing new tolls on existing interstate highways.

The GROW AMERICA Act would eliminate restrictions held in place since the creation of the Federal Interstate System, according to a summary of the plan’s provisions, allowing states that receive permission from the Secretary of Transportation to toll existing Interstate highways “in order to make improvements or to manage congestion.”

Since its creation in 1956, interstates have been funded primarily through fuel taxes, with tolls banned on all sections of highway built after that date, according to The Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates (ATFI). The only exception is a 1998 program available to three states, none of which have taken advantage of it to date.

(RELATED: Obama Proposal Would Almost Double Federal Highway Spending)

The exact criteria by which the Secretary would evaluate such requests will not be known until they are published for public comment in the Federal Register, but that has not stopped organizations on both sides of the issue from opining.

“Tolling interstate lanes which drivers now freely access is an inefficient financing mechanism that is the worst possible approach to raising transportation revenue,” ATFI spokesman Julian Walker said Monday in a press release, noting that “the idea has already been rejected by lawmakers, the public, and community leaders in the few states with a federal exception to the tolling prohibition.”

Walker argues that tolls not only “divert heavy highway traffic onto secondary streets,” leading to higher road maintenance costs, but also “endanger public safety when rescue workers are delayed in responding to emergencies,” though the latter concern would be only be temporary under the Obama proposal, which requires cash-free, electronic tolling after Oct. 1, 2016. (RELATED: Repatriation Funding Won’t Fix Highway Funding Shortfall, Critics Say)

The free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, on the other hand, says in a blog post that although Congress is unlikely to pass the GROW AMERICA Act, the tolling provision is one of two “very smart elements that Congress should attach to their own reauthorization package.”

“Contrary to popular belief, the states, not the federal government, own and operate the Interstate Highway System,” CEI notes, adding that because of this local dynamic, “tolling offers a number of advantages over fuel tax or non-user funding.”

Most importantly, according to CEI, no federal funds can be used for maintenance on any tolled segments of the Interstate, ensuring that those costs are borne exclusively by those who benefit from using the roads. (RELATED: Mike Lee Would Send Highway Funds to the States)

Walker, however, counters that this would not necessarily be the case under the Obama plan, which would “let states redirect toll revenues to completely unrelated projects, abusing public trust and exploiting highway drivers with a tax on interstates to pay for trolleys, public transit, and unspecified environmental projects, all without solving the transportation funding problem.”

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