By David Tanner
Just a few years ago, opponents of tolling schemes for U.S. roadways and bridges could pick their battles and concentrate their efforts.
But in recent years, with a seemingly endless stream of toll proposals surfacing throughout the country, it’s starting to feel like a good ol’ fashioned game of Whac-a-Mole on high speed.
Tolling opponents had barely caught their breath from a heavy offensive against I-80 tolls in Pennsylvania when a slew of plans surfaced, many of them involving interstate capacity.
“As highway users, we play Whac-a-Mole with these toll projects,” said OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs Mike Joyce.
“We bat down these things as they come up just like in the game. Well, the game board is going to get a lot bigger, and it’s going to get more challenging to knock these things down.”
Officials in Virginia and North Carolina are pursuing tolls on their respective portions of I-95 to capture revenue from traffic entering one state from the other. Virginia officials told the Federal Highway Administration in correspondence that 100 percent of the toll revenue would remain with the roadway, something that Pennsylvania officials could not promise for I-80.
Despite Virginia’s attempt at a disclaimer, Joyce says tolls on an existing federal highway would impede interstate commerce.
Another proposal involves a partnership between Pennsylvania and New Jersey to replace the toll-free Scudder Falls Bridge over the Delaware River with a tolled facility. Claims by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell that officials do not need to obtain FHWA authority to toll the new bridge are not going to go unchallenged.
“The understanding is that they want to replace a non-tolled bridge with a tolled bridge. To us, that is no different than taking an existing road or an existing link and tolling it,” Joyce said.
“The officials there are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole and nuance it to make it fit what they want.”
An FHWA spokeswoman says any plan for tolls involving an interstate requires approval.
“Generally speaking, any project using federal-aid highway funds requires FHWA approval,” spokeswoman Nancy Singer told Land Line.
In the continuing game of Whac-a-Toll, OOIDA has reserved a special mallet for a scenario involving the proposed Ohio River Bridges Project.
A regional bridge authority based in Louisville, KY, wants to toll three existing interstate bridges to raise revenue to build two new bridges in the area. Those bridges would also be tolled.
OOIDA has already sent out Calls to Action to members in both states to speak their minds about having to pay tolls where no toll existed before.
Another plan, this time along I-5 in the Pacific Northwest, involves replacing a toll-free I-5 bridge linking Washington and Oregon with a tolled bridge. Public comments received by officials indicate a strong opposition to tolls. Many of the comments were submitted by truck drivers.
Joyce says highway users will continue to see highway and bridge tolling schemes as long as Congress and the White House continue to operate without a new long-term surface transportation reauthorization bill, known as a highway bill.
“Bottom line is, we’re left with states that are uncertain about future funding. And they’re also experiencing shortfalls in their own revenue because of the economy,” he said.
“All of this creates a perfect storm, and the highway bill gets pushed out longer and longer. … Unfortunately, tolls become an expensive obstruction to commerce and for people trying to make a living.”
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has told congressional committees that tolling can raise a lot of money and should be considered as part of the next highway bill.
OOIDA is following the highway bill debate closely in addition to activity at the state level.
“We’re going to call on our members to voice their concern on these issues,” Joyce said. “They’ve got to be prepared to offer a solution.”
Joyce said OOIDA would support a federal fuel-tax increase, but with strings attached to ensure that highway money stays with highways and is not diverted to non-highway programs. LL