Are tolls on interstate highways on the road ahead?
The transportation legislation sent to Congress by President Barack Obama this week includes language that would allow states to impose tolls on highways that currently are free, with approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Theoretically, that could usher in a day when drivers on highways such as Interstates 79 and 80 have dollars plucked from their E-ZPass accounts as they travel. But the likelihood of it happening anytime soon is slim.
Pennsylvania no longer faces the same transportation funding squeeze as other states, thanks to the Legislature's passage of Act 89 last year, providing up to $2.5 billion in new annual revenue for roads, bridges, transit and other modes.
A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation said tolls could someday replace the gasoline tax as the principal method for funding transportation projects.
"If, and it's a big if, the ability to toll interstates becomes a reality, then it could become a tool for those leaders who come after this administration to have at their disposal as more hybrid and all-electric vehicles become more commonplace," said Rich Kirkpatrick, PennDOT press secretary.
"Thanks to the leadership of Gov. [Tom] Corbett and our state Legislature, Act 89 will provide sufficient funding for the foreseeable future," he said. "However, as fuel efficiency continues to improve, without question a mileage-based user fee such as tolling will eventually replace our fuel-user tax."
Supporters say tolling would give states a useful revenue-generating mechanism at a time when Congress seems unwilling to adequately fund transportation infrastructure. The federal gasoline tax hasn't been raised since 1993 and has lost about half its value to inflation.
The current two-year transportation authorization law that expires at the end of September provided no funding increases to states, many of which were already struggling to maintain their roads and bridges. The Highway Trust Fund, which holds the gas tax revenue, is expected to go broke this summer, and congressional inaction could bring construction projects to a halt.
An organization that represents toll road interests praised the president's proposal.
The Obama administration recognized "the importance of giving states the maximum amount of flexibility to use all appropriate funding and financing tools to meet their 21st century funding challenges," said Patrick Jones, CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.
On the other side is a newly formed group of businesses and organizations, ranging from fast-food restaurant chains to trucking companies, who are opposed to tolling interstates.
"Tolling has proven to be an inefficient mechanism for collecting transportation revenue, consuming up to 20 percent of revenue generated, and those paying the toll may not even see that road improved because the president's plan would allow toll revenue to go to other projects in the state," said Miles Morin, spokesman for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates.
The alliance was formed this year and its members include the American Trucking Associations, Dunkin' Donuts, FedEx, McDonald's, UPS and Volvo Group North America.
"Tolling existing interstates is inefficient, causes traffic diversion and increases supply chain costs that hurt businesses and consumers. Transportation infrastructure needs improvements, but of all the ways to fund them, tolling existing interstates is the worst," Mr. Morin said.
The federal government has, for the most part, prohibited tolls since the Interstate Highway System was conceived in the 1950s.
Recent history illustrates the political difficulty, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, with tolling interstates.
A plan to toll I-80 in Pennsylvania faced substantial opposition when it was revived by PennDOT in 2009, and it was eventually rejected by the Federal Highway Administration.
In addition to the tolling proposal, Mr. Obama's legislation calls for $302 billion in spending over four years.
Called the Grow America Act, it would shore up the Highway Trust Fund with new revenue from reforms to business taxation and provide an additional $87 billion to improve deficient bridges and transit systems, according to a summary.
The legislation calls for a 37 percent overall annual spending increase on transportation programs, including a 21 percent increase for highways and 69 percent for transit. Funding for passenger rail service would be increased 71 percent.
Jon Schmitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.