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States Take a Closer Look at Interstate Tolling

States stuck with maintaining federal highways are paying more attention to the potential of interstate tolls.

In 2007, Pennsylvania legislators passed Act 44, allowing the state to take steps toward tolling Interstate 80, running east to west through the middle of the state. Proceeds from the toll would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars each year for road repairs and public transit systems. The problem with this is states need federal authorization to add tolls to interstates. This year, the U.S. Department of Transportation rejected Pennsylvania’s third request to add tolls to I-80, leaving the state scrambling to fill a $472 million hole in its transportation budget.

The gas tax, the main revenue source for transportation projects at the state and federal levels, has been declining for years amid a cutback in driving, a shift to fuel-efficient cars and slumping auto sales. While toll roads aren’t a new idea, they’ve been emerging for some time now as a potential strategy for states looking to replace gas tax revenues, and plug shrinking road and maintenance budgets.

Right now, the only way a state can add tolls to interstate highways is if it has the Federal Highway Administration’s authorization. In particular, states must be part of an administration pilot project, but spaces are limited. The Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program, for example, can take only three states -- and Missouri and Virginia already take up two slots. Neither state has actually placed a toll on an interstate, but if Virginia’s recent appeal to switch its toll authorization from I-81 to I-95 is approved, tolls on I-95 could appear as early as 2012.

This leaves one spot open for a state to pursue interstate tolling, which has received increased interest, says U.S. Department of Transportation spokeswoman Nancy Singer. But the pilot’s rules are very specific: Toll proceeds can only be used on the road it was collected. Pennsylvania’s appeal was rejected because it planned to use toll proceeds from I-80 on other projects. In the past, legislators in Wyoming also considered taking steps to toll their section of I-80, but legislation hasn’t succeeded.

When Congress addresses the next reauthorization of surface transportation funding for states, interstate tolling, public-private partnerships and gas-tax increases will likely be among the topics discussed. Building America’s Future, a coalition of public officials co-founded by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, is pushing for more state flexibility in financing and maintaining interstate highway repairs.

In the meantime, Pennsylvania legislators still must determine how to fill the state’s transportation budget hole. Legislators haven’t lost hope in interstate tolling -- the state’s Senate Transportation Committee held public hearings on interstate tolling in September.

Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.
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