States Push to Convert Interstate Highways into Toll Roads

 
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The 40-mile stretch of Interstate 95 that serves as Rhode Island's transportation backbone is falling apart, despite several ambitious projects by the state to relieve congestion and improve safety on the well-traveled route between New York and Boston. Conditions on one I-95 bridge are bad enough that heavy trucks must find a different route to cross the Pawtucket River. A major viaduct in Providence needs replacing.

The needs are piling up. A recent study shows that Rhode Island must spend about $300 million more a year just to keep its current roads and bridges in good repair. That is twice as much as the state typically spends.

There is an obvious way to pay for the needed upkeep-make Interstate 95 into a toll road as it crosses the state. But that idea may be illegal. Ever since the interstate system was built, Congress has prohibited states from charging tolls on highways built with federal money. The constraint posed fewer problems when transportation money was easier to find. But now almost every other source of road funds is drying up, and several states are eyeing the possibility of collecting tolls on interstates that drivers now use for free.

Rhode Island is one. The state, says Michael Lewis, the director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, is running out of alternatives. "The tolling option," he says, "is what we think of as the least painful, most equitable, least impacting option to raise additional revenues that can be invested back in states' infrastructure."

Virtually every state, like Rhode Island, faces a funding crunch for roads. The federal piggy bank for highway maintenance, a major funding source for states, is nearly empty. The bulk of its money is raised through the federal gas tax, which has not been increased since 1993. Despite several moves by Congress in the last three years to replenish the Highway Trust Fund, that money is expected to run out again by late 2012.

The consensus on Capitol Hill, where Congress is drafting a new highway funding bill, is that the new highway plan will have less money than in the past for transportation. That puts further pressure on states to find other sources for road repairs. States have been hesitant to raise their own gas taxes, too, and their poor fiscal conditions leave them with few options for finding money elsewhere in their budgets.

In Rhode Island, which has one of the highest state gas taxes in the country, the governor has tried to find more money for fixing roads by calling for increased vehicle registration fees and by pushing lower borrowing levels, which would free up money now spent on interest.

Exception to the rule

Adding tolls is nearly as unpopular with the public as raising the federal gas tax, but states are betting that motorists will pay higher fees if they get specific improvements in return.

Under current law, states are allowed to toll interstates if the roads had tolls before they became part of the national network, which is why so many states in the Northeast already charge tolls for driving on I-95. They also are allowed to put tolls on new roads that are not part of the Interstate Highway System. States can even add new carpool lanes to existing interstates, and charge money to use the faster lanes. But they generally cannot put tolls on previously toll-free interstate stretches built with federal money.

There is, however, one exception to the rule. In 1998, Congress created a pilot program under which up to three states can start collecting tolls on existing interstates to fund improvements on those roads. So far, though, no states have used it.

Virginia and Missouri both have federal permission to move ahead with the idea, but neither has the tolls up and running. Last year, Virginia amended its request and asked the federal government to let it place tolls on Interstate 95 near the North Carolina border. That request is still pending.

Pennsylvania also applied for the exception, in order to put tolls on Interstate 80 across the northern stretch of the state. The federal government rejected that plan, largely because it would have diverted some of the toll revenue from the highway to support public transit in Philadelphia.

Edward Rendell, who was Pennsylvania's governor at the time, argued in a recent congressional hearing that the conditions were too stringent. Placing tolls on I-80 would have allowed the state to increase its annual maintenance budget for the road from $90 million to $200 million, he said.

"States simply do not have that capacity without you allowing us to toll," Rendell told a Senate panel in May. "So job one is lift the cap on tolling. It'll be our decision. It'll be governors and legislatures (who) decide whether to toll or not. But for Lord's sake, lift the cap."

Rhode Island hopes to qualify for the spot left open when Pennsylvania's application failed. Lewis, the transportation director, says Rhode Island officials learned from Pennsylvania's experience. Under the plan they are now developing, tolls collected on I-95 would go only toward improvements to the interstate itself.

The interstate has plenty of needs. Right now, Rhode Island is wrapping up a decade-long project to reroute traffic through downtown Providence, but the state will be paying for this project, called the Iway , out of its share of federal highway money for another 12 years. Now, the state is starting to fix up the Pawtucket River bridge, near Massachusetts, where the heavy trucks are being diverted. Repairs on that bridge alone will cost the state half of its annual federal apportionment, Lewis says. Next on the list of repairs is the Providence viaduct.

So far, though, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been skeptical. "If a state or a governor or DOT wants to add capacity or two lanes on each side, we think that's a good use of tolls, and we have supported that kind of approach," he told a Rhode Island television station . "We don't support the kind of approach, though, for roads that have already been built with taxpayer dollars then to be tolled."

Lewis hopes LaHood will change his tune once Rhode Island submits its proposal, most likely this summer. In any event, the state is a long way from putting up toll booths. The General Assembly would still have to approve the plan, and engineering work would have to be done. The toll plazas would not open for at least another two years.

Challenging restrictions

With the highway bill being rewritten and states scrambling for more road money, the issue of tolling interstates is not likely to go away soon. "Bake sales," Lewis says, "aren't going to do this."

Tolling, for example, is part of the discussion of how to improve North Carolina's stretch of Interstate 95. The state is in the middle of a two-year study on the future of the aging highway, and officials there have said that tolling is one of the options on the table.

The federal restrictions on tolling were put into place originally so that motorists would not have to pay twice to use the highways: once at the pump, when they pay a gas tax, and a second time at the toll booth. But some of the roads that were built under the original program are now more than half a century old. "You can argue," says Ron Utt of the Heritage Foundation, "that these projects have been fully depreciated."

Allowing tolls on interstates, Utt says, could become the "fallback position" for members of Congress, who have few other options for finding more road money. It would also put the onus on state officials, who would have to choose whether to raise tolls and how to spend the money.

"This could be a big deal if this is part of the reauthorization," Utt says, "but at the same time it really depends on whether the states are going to use the opportunities provided to them."

 
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