Are more toll roads in America's future?

The Obama administration on Tuesday submitted to Congress a $302 billion, four-year surface transportation bill meant to avert a possible summer shutdown of federally funded projects.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says inaction on what the administration calls the GROW AMERICA Act could have wide-ranging impact.

"As soon as August, the Highway Trust Fund could run dry," Foxx wrote Tuesday on the Department of Transportation's blog. "States are already canceling or delaying projects. That means crucial road improvements won't get done. It means transportation construction companies won't get contracts. And it means workers won't have job sites."

Nearly everyone agrees that America's infrastructure, especially its aging highway system, needs work. But one particular part of the bill has raised some eyebrows.

It's a provision that calls for eliminating "the prohibition on tolling existing free Interstate highways, subject to the approval of the Secretary, for purposes of reconstruction." It would also allow states more flexibility to use such toll revenue for repairs "on all components of their highway systems."

In a phone call with reporters, Foxx noted the addition of such tolls would be a state decision, and would first require DOT approval.

"We would never tell a state or a local project sponsor to toll." he said, "but that optionality is increasingly becoming something that states are interested in, and we'll consider finding ways to help when that's an option that states want to consider."

There was mixed reaction to the news. A press statement by the executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA), which represents the owners and operators of toll facilities and their related businesses, praised the Obama administration for recognizing "the importance of giving states the maximum amount of flexibility to use all appropriate funding and financing tools to meet their 21st century funding challenges."

And AAA said the GROW AMERICA Act "delivers on the core responsibility of the federal government, which is to facilitate interstate commerce, enhance personal mobility, make our roads safer and keep America globally competitive in a rapidly changing world."

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), a trade group representing small-business trucking professionals as well as professional truck drivers, said it was reviewing the provision.

But OOIDA director of government affairs Ryan Bowley expressed disappointment with the proposal, telling the organization's magazine that the bill might "open the door to a localized interstate system by allowing states to apply tolls to existing toll-free interstate lanes."

"Truckers in states with 'grandfathered' tolling authorities already know the cost of tolls to their business and personal incomes," he added, "as well as to an efficient system of goods movement."

  • Bruce Kennedy

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