LaHood to states: If you want tolls, add capacity

| Thursday, March 03, 2011

The White House is willing to approve more state tolling projects, but only when new capacity is added to the highway system, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said this week.

LaHood addressed the American Association of Highway and Transportation Officials, or AASHTO, on Wednesday, March 2. Joining him was U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-FL, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Funding the next six years of surface transportation programs is not going to come easy, and both men agree that innovative financing including tolls will be necessary.

?Tolling has to be part of the mix,? LaHood told the AASHTO group. ?You can raise a lot of money with tolls. And if states decide that?s the way they want to go, we would not (object) ? as long as you?re building more capacity. That?s really what we?re going to look at.?

Two high-profile tolling scenarios that LaHood?s department is excited about, he said, are the Interstate 5 bridge connecting Washington state and Oregon, and a proposal for new bridges in the Louisville area connecting Kentucky and Indiana.

?They?re building a new bridge between the two states, and we?ve agreed that tolling is going to be a part of that,? LaHood said.

Coming up with policies and funding to fit a proposed six-year, $550 billion plan floated last month by President Obama will fall to Congress and its committees, including Mica?s.

LaHood called on AASHTO ? a transportation liaison between 50 states and Washington, DC ? to come forward with innovative ways to finance and build transportation projects. Many states are already doing that with tolling applications.

An official in attendance asked why the Federal Highway Administration rejected tolls for Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania.

?The only reason we turned down the Pennsylvania plan was because part of the tolls were going to be used for other things,? LaHood said.

?If a state comes to us and says we want to build more capacity, we want to put a HOT lane in, we want to put a couple of other lanes in, and toll ? we?re going to be very responsive to that.?

Mica was next to take the podium. He said the next long-term transportation program must stabilize the Highway Trust Fund.

?We?re going to stabilize the Trust Fund. That?s a must,? he said. Secondly, Mica said Congress must round up every dollar that is just sitting there and dedicate it to transportation.

?Get it into the system so we can front-load,? he said.

Perhaps the biggest way to save money is to speed up project delivery, he said.

?If there?s a stalled project, we?re going to figure out how to move it forward or figure out how to move the money into infrastructure,? Mica said.

Mica said creative financing and leveraging will be part of the mix. In previous speeches, this has included tolling.

As the AASHTO meeting was happening in Washington, DC, President Obama was signing a stopgap bill to keep government programs running for two weeks.

Obama has also called on Congress to pass another funding extension through Sept. 30. Mica told AASHTO that the Sept. 30 extension will be necessary but, after that, transportation needs a six-year plan in place to give states the certainty and job creation they?re looking for.

Without the stopgaps, transportation and other programs face a government shutdown or furlough. Since 2009, transportation has received seven short-term or stopgap funding measures to continue operating.