“A lot of elected representatives are starting to see TxDOT as this rogue agency. They’re realizing that their arrogance is quite amazing.”
Could Halt Plans in Pennsylvania, Texas
by Richard Williamson
The Bond Buyer
DALLAS — Amid a furor over proposals to toll interstate highways in Texas, Pennsylvania, and other states, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison seeks to tighten a toll ban on existing federally funded freeways.
“I intend to immediately introduce as free-standing legislation my amendment that the Senate passed in 2005 to specifically prohibit states from tolling existing interstate highways,” Hutchison, a Republican, said in a prepared statement. “I will work with members of the Texas congressional delegation and the state legislature to ensure that Texans are never asked to pay a toll on an existing interstate highway.”
Hutchison’s bill would also halt Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s plans to impose tolls on Interstate 80, said Hutchison spokesman Matt Mackowiak.
Hutchison sits on the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which would have to consider the bill. She is also a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which appropriates funding for the U.S. Department of Transportation. But she is not a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which would also review her legislation.
The U.S. DOT declined to comment on the bill, noting that it was an issue for Congress.
However,Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has said publicly that she sees tolling as one way to reduce congestion and has personally lobbied lawmakers in Pennsylvania in support of tolling I-80.
Two northwestern Pennsylvania Republican congressmen, Reps. Phil English and John Peterson, included language in the House version of the fiscal 2008 appropriations bill for the DOT, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and related agencies that would stop Pennsylvania from tolling I-80. That language is not in the Senate version of the bill and would have to be reconciled in a conference committee.
Hutchison’s bill, S. 2019, follows an uproar over a Texas Department of Transportation report called “Forward Momentum” that was presented in February to members of Congress, but that received little press attention until this week.
“For whatever reason, it’s getting a lot of attention now,” said TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott, who yesterday traveled to Washington with Texas Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson for meetings with Hutchison and other members of the Texas congressional delegation.
The Texas Toll Party, an advocacy group opposed to tolling, this week held events to focus their opposition to the tolling proposals. Setting tolls on freeways that have already been paid for is a form of double taxation and will create congestion on access roads and surface streets that are controlled by stop signals, the group says.
Although federal law bans the addition of tolls on freeways completed with federal money, states can apply to the U.S. Department of Transportation to place tolls on the roads as pilot projects. In Houston, TxDOT is building optional toll lanes for some of the traffic on Interstate 10.
Pennsylvania has applied for such a pilot project on I-80.
Hutchison’s bill would not prevent tolling on new lanes on federal highways but would ban it on existing lanes only. The I-10 project would be grandfathered, as would any existing toll lanes as of the date the bill passed. Also unaffected would be the toll section of Interstate 35 from Kansas City, Kan., to the Oklahoma border known as the Kansas Turnpike. That section of the interstate has been a toll road for more than 50 years, with $75 million in tolls collected last year.
TxDOT wants the option to buy back the highways so that it could convert them to tollways. To raise the funds to pay off the federal investment, TxDOT could try to sell the roads to foreign investors. The investors would collect tolls on the freeway and share some of the tax-free revenue with TxDOT.
Loosening restrictions on such a process would require federal legislation that would be the opposite of what Hutchison’s bill proposes.
Among TxDOT’s ideas for raising revenue are imposing a tax on motorists driving on existing federal interstate freeways, boosting the agency’s ability to borrow money, and exempting private companies that operate toll roads from federal taxation.
Lippincott said TxDOT is simply seeking innovative financial solutions amid harsh political realities and growing transportation needs.
“The old way of funding transportation is crumbling beneath our feet,” he said. “There is a very limited appetite for increasing the gas tax.”
Hutchison’s bill comes amid mixed signals from the Texas Legislature on the roll of tolling in Texas. In May, the Texas Legislature passed a two-year moratorium on construction of private toll roads while permitting projects already in the works to proceed. An attempt to strip TxDOT of much of its authority was passed but later withdrawn amid concerns about the impact on federal highway funding.
Texas Toll Party has no objection to construction of new toll roads but is strongly opposed to tolling on highways that have already been fully funded by tax dollars, a position Hutchison shares.
In meetings between Williamson and the Texas congressional delegation yesterday, Hutchison’s bill was not discussed, participants said. But Williamson called the meetings “very productive.”
“He talked with members about the funding crunch we face as a state and the prospect of moving billions of dollars from our new construction budget to maintenance in order to address soaring construction costs and increased wear-and-tear on our system,” Lippincott said.
Hutchison is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees the annual budget of the U.S. DOT. The agency declined to comment on the bill, noting that it was an issue for Congress. However, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has said publicly that she sees tolling as one way to reduce congestion and has personally lobbied lawmakers in Pennsylvania in support of tolling I-80.
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