Proposal To Allow State Tolls On Interstates Hits Roadblocks

President Obama has proposed allowing states to collect tolls on interstate highways as a way of raising funds to pay for reconstructing those roads. Most of the interstate system is toll free.

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Let's talk a little more now about the effort to refill the federal highway trust fund, which is expected to run out of cash later this summer. A short-term fix passed the house earlier this week, and the Senate is said to consider a similar measure - that's the short term. Then there's the question of the longer-term. One possible solution from the White House would let states collect tolls on interstate highways. They've been prohibited from doing that for decades. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It's a weekday morning, and cars and trucks stream past toll booth number 10 on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It's on the western end of the 4.3-mile-long span that crosses the Chesapeake Near Annapolis, Maryland. Nancy Althoff is the toll shift supervisor. Althoff has been collecting tolls here since 1969. Most of the time, she says, she enjoys her work, but there are mornings when it's stressful - when traffic is backed up or drivers are unhappy with the toll.

NANCY ALTHOFF: Last year when the toll went up in July, people were kind of upset because it had just gone up in - what? - November of the year before, and they were kind of upset. And I think actually some people thought it was going to go up in July of this year.

NAYLOR: Drivers around the country might find themselves upset if the administration's proposal to allow states to toll interstate highways goes through. The administration says the new tolls could raise some $87 billion to pay for the upkeep of interstates, but the proposal is facing some barriers of its own. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We state that the Obama administration says new tolls could raise $87 billion to pay for upkeep of interstates. That $87 billion would actually be raised by proposed corporate tax changes, and DOT says it has not estimated how much would be raised by possible tolls.] The Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates includes corporations such as McDonald's, UPS and FedEx. It says the plan would amount to double taxation and hit low-wage workers especially hard. Julian Walker is the group's spokesman.

JULIAN WALKER: The minimum wage is $7.25. If you put a four dollar toll on that road, that could cause a worker going to and from work to work essentially an extra hour just to pay for the commuting costs.

NAYLOR: He says putting tolls on interstates would divert traffic onto other roads less equipped to handle high traffic volumes and amount to double taxation because the roads have already been paid for. But the International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association, which represents companies that collect tolls, has a different view. Patrick Jones, the group's CEO, says it's like paying off a mortgage.

PATRICK JONES: And even though you own the house free and clear, that doesn't remove you of the responsibility to maintain - and proper upkeep of the house. The same is true of a highway and the interstate highway system. The states own the right-of-way. They put the initial pavement down there, but in many cases, the pavement has worn away. There's potholes. There's rutting, etcetera. And it needs to be replaced.

NAYLOR: Jones says most states would probably use electronic toll collection systems, but so far, the idea of allowing states to impose tolls on interstate highways has gotten little traction in Congress. Transportation analyst Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution says it's best viewed as part of a larger solution.

ROBERT PUENTES: Tolling on the interstates is not going to be the silver bullet solution for fixing our transportation challenges. Overall, it's certainly going to help, and again, if it's used for maintenance of an existing roadway, that's certainly going to help certain states and cities and metropolitan areas. But if we're looking for systemic changes and systemic fixes to the larger system, it's going to take something like a gasoline tax.

NAYLOR: But raising the gas tax is almost certainly not going to happen this year either, which is why lawmakers are looking at a patchwork of smaller fixes to put the problem off until after election day and leave it to the next Congress to solve. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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Correction July 18, 2014

We state that the Obama administration says new tolls could raise $87 billion to pay for upkeep of interstates. That $87 billion would actually be raised by proposed corporate tax changes, and DOT says it has not estimated how much would be raised by possible tolls.

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