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At Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, All Roads Lead Back to Tolling

By: 
Bill Cramer

To anyone who listened closely to yesterday’s U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on funding America’s transportation infrastructure needs, one conclusion was inescapably clear: one way or another, almost all the solutions on the table came back to tolling.

The Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies (THUD) had a daunting task on its hands, as Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) pointed out in her opening remarks as chairman. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s latest Conditions and Performance report points to an $836-billion backlog in highway and bridge funding. To close that gap and meet the next two decades of funding needs, “all levels of government combined would be required to increase spending by 36%,” Collins noted.

She pointed to a familiar challenge that fiscal reality creates for the new U.S. Administration: “finding a way to pay for the much-needed infrastructure spending without increasing taxes on those who are least able to pay them, or using budget gimmicks that simply lead to more deficit spending and add to our nation’s ever-growing debt.” The Senator listed tolls, vehicle miles travelled (VMT) charges, public-private partnerships, user fees, sales taxes, expanded TIFIA loans, and private activity bonds as realistic options.

Time to Get This Done

What was striking about the hearing was that most everyone in the room agreed on the urgent need to get caught up on the country’s highway infrastructure deficit, once and for all. Most of their statements were consistent with arguments the tolling industry has been advancing for years.

“Like those of us who own a home know, failure to maintain an asset allows minor problems to turn into major reconstruction,” warned Ed Mortimer, Executive Director, Transportation Infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He said any upcoming infrastructure legislation “should employ a variety of funding mechanisms tailored to the various infrastructure project lines” and look out for the long-term solvency of the federal Highway Trust Fund.

Among his preferred funding mechanisms, Mortimer listed public-private partnerships—which rely on revenue flows that are often most easily assured by tolling.

David Bernhardt, President of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), led off with the U.S. government’s Constitutional duty to support the nation’s transportation system. “For most of its life since its inception in 1956, the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF) has provided stable, reliable, and substantial highway and transit funding,” he told the subcommittee. But recently, “the lack of stable funding from the HTF makes it nearly impossible for State DOTs to plan for large projects that need a reliable flow of funding over multiple years.”

He called for timely annual appropriations to minimize program disruptions, federal funding for multimodal transportation solutions, and a major infrastructure package “that benefits every part of our nation”—once again echoing the practicality and inclusiveness at the heart of IBTTA’s calls for a wider toolbox of funding and financing options.

Farther, Faster, Less Expensive

Along with his testimony, Mortimer tabled a set of four principles introduced by the Coalition to Modernize American Infrastructure. The first affirms the need to make infrastructure “a national priority in order to ensure future economic prosperity.” The other three point to the underlying value that tolling delivers every day to highway systems across the country:

·       Robust, reliable, long-term funding

·       Public-private partnerships and expanded financing programs to “unleash the resources of the private sector as partners in addressing our infrastructure needs”

·       Efforts to “deliver modern infrastructure more quickly and at less cost.”

All told, yesterday’s THUD hearing was a superb and timely measure of the sense of possibility sweeping the transportation community in Washington, DC. Tolling was not a central focus of the hearing but, honestly, it didn’t need to be. Everyone in the room was committed to a big, effective response to an urgent problem. And in one way or another, virtually every solution on offer mapped back to tolling as an essential tool in the funding toolbox.

Is your funding toolbox in order? Register today for IBTTA’s Summit on Finance, Policy and VMT, April 23-25, 2017 in Jersey City, NJ.