Infrastructure & Environment

Big Businesses Fight to Keep Ban on Interstate Tolling

April 7, 2014

The debate over repairs to the nation’s federal highways could be simplified as this: Will improved Interstates force people into bypassing their Big Macs?

There is not much disagreement on the need to fill the yawning potholes, strengthen the deteriorating bridge supports or repave vast stretches of the federally maintained road system. The fight is over how those extensive, and expensive, fixes would be financed. And the Highway Trust Fund, which usually shoulders such costs, is teetering on bankruptcy.

Lawmakers and some business groups are pushing to lift the ban on new tolls along existing Interstate highways, a move that would provide additional revenue for road maintenance and repair.

But a coalition of some of the nation’s biggest companies, including FedEx and McDonald’s, are fighting to keep the Interstates as toll-free as possible. They argue that tolls would add significantly to the expense of moving their goods across the country.

There is also a hidden cost, they say, for restaurants, convenience stores, gas stations and other businesses that depend on Interstate highway traffic. The tolls could cost them customers as travelers choose other routes.

“People aren’t going to stop at a McDonald’s or a hotel if they have to get off the Interstate and pay a toll, then pay a toll to get back on,” said Jay B. Perron, vice president of government affairs for the International Franchisee Association, which is part of the toll opposition. “It’s a significant economic hit for these businesses, if people chose to avoid them because of tolls.”

On the other side is the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, a group that represents toll companies and their vendors. It says adding tolls to highways that do not have them and increasing tolls that are already in place are the most sensible solutions for financing repairs to the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure.

“Tolling is a proven, effective funding and financing method that works,” said Patrick D. Jones, the association’s executive director. “We’re not saying every state needs to set up tolls, just give them the flexibility to do so when it makes sense.”

The fight is being waged as Congress prepares to rewrite the surface transportation bill, which expires Oct. 1. Highway construction and repair projects are typically paid for by the Highway Trust Fund, which is financed by a gasoline tax that has for decades been the chief source of revenue in the construction of American highways.

The tax, which is set at 18.4 cents per gallon, is not indexed to inflation and has not been raised since 1993. In addition, the rise of hybrid vehicles and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks has caused the tax revenues to fall. The Highway Trust Fund will be bankrupt next year unless Congress acts, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The pro-toll effort has the support of many state and local transportation officials. They argue that local officials, who can raise their own fuel and sales taxes, cannot come up with the trillions of dollars needed to repair, or in some cases rebuild, sections of the federal Interstate System.

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