By Kevin Pula and Ben Husch
As the perennial conversation around transportation funding and financing continues at both the state and federal level, tolling has become front of mind for many stakeholders.
But just like the Oldsmobile, this is not your father’s tolling. Modern electric tolling and the closely related approach of price-managed lanes are distinct from the historical model of highway tolling, tollbooths and coin collecting.
Technological advancements in vehicle identification, backend financial processing, and transportation operations and management have created an environment where many of the driving-related negative externalities of tolling may be mitigated.
While a federal moratorium on interstate tolling still exists, the U.S. Department of Transportation and members of Congress have expressed interest in revisiting tolling as a viable funding source for transportation infrastructure.
Last month, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) issued a notice of invitation for states to apply for the two-decade sold, but woefully underutilized, Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program (ISRRPP).
Since 1998, the ISRRPP has allowed up to three states—Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia—to collect tolls on existing interstate facilities to finance the reconstruction or rehabilitation of Interstate corridors and “not to support other surface transportation projects.” The 2015 Federal FAST Act included language to expand the pilot program, notably allowing new states to apply for the positions historically held by the three states that abstained from implementing pilot tolling projects over the past 20 years.
The FHWA notice provides details on the timeline, program description and slots, eligibility information, and the submission and review process. Notably, the document highlights other avenues for federal tolling authority, including options to toll newly constructed interstate lanes, high occupancy vehicle facilities, and bridge or tunnel replacement projects. Interestingly, in recent years, states have begun to pursue all these alternative methods of interstate tolling—a potentially telling sign that ISRRPP may gain more attention in the coming years.
At the state level, at least 35 states have toll facilities, either in the form of a traditional toll road, bridge, tunnel or a price-managed lane. In recent years, NCSL has observed increased legislative action in states such as Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Oregon, North Carolina and Rhode Island. Since 2013, at least 36 states have considered more than 550 bills related to tolling, including more than 125 bills from 27 states in 2018 alone.
Rhode Island attracted national attention in 2016 upon the passage of SB 2246 which authorized the replacement, reconstruction and maintenance of certain bridges. Further, the bill permitted the creation of tolls levied only on commercial vehicles to fund such construction projects.
In 2017, Indiana passed HB 1002 which granted broad authority to the governor to establish toll facilities on certain highways across the state, including reconstructed interstate bridges. The bill also increased the state motor fuels tax and vehicle registration fees, among other provisions. In September 2018, Governor Eric Holcomb announced a deal reached between the state and the concessionaire of the Indiana Toll Road P3, a border-to-border toll road and crowded freight corridor, to permit toll increases of up to 35 percent on certain commercial vehicles in exchange for a $1 billion payment to the state.
Similarly, Oregon’s 2017 HB 2017 provided for $5.3 billion in new revenues for transportation through a combination of tolling, motor fuels tax increases and vehicle registration fees. The tolling provisions allow for tolls to be implemented on Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 near the Oregon-Washington border, a move that drew consternation from Washington’s State Legislature and congressional delegation.
Tolling remains a hotly debated topic within the Connecticut General Assembly where, ultimately, tolling-related legislation died in the 2018 session. Even so, the outgoing Governor Dannel Malloy commissioned a $10 million tolling analysis to explore reinstating tolls on the state’s highways, a move that triggered a lawsuit by the state legislature.
As states continue to grapple with deepening revenue shortfalls and increasing strain on their transportation networks, tolling will certainly remain front and center of the policy debate. While not a viable option for all regions of the country, many states have looked to electronic tolling to be a piece of their solution.
Kevin Pula is a senior policy specialist with NCSL’s Transportation Program.
Ben Husch is the senior policy director for NCSL’s Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee.