Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"Tolling existing freeways is bad public policy, and states like...Texas would incur irrevocable economic damage."

House bill would block highway tolls


Gary Martin
San Antonio Express-News Washington Bureau
Copyright 2007

WASHINGTON — House lawmakers from Texas and Pennsylvania filed a bill to block proposals in their respective states to toll federal highways to provide revenue for repair and construction, officials said Tuesday.

The House bill is a companion to legislation filed in the Senate by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who has vowed to stop efforts in Austin to "buy back" federal highways and levying tolls on state taxpayers.

"Tolling existing freeways — the lifeblood of moving goods and services — is bad public policy, and states like Pennsylvania and Texas would incur irrevocable economic damage," said Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa.

Rep. Ciro Rodriguez and Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, both San Antonio Democrats, joined Peterson and Rep. Phil English, R-Pa., in co-sponsoring the House bill.

Rodriguez signed on one week after meeting with Ric Williamson, the Texas transportation commissioner, in Washington.

Williamson met with federal lawmakers, urging them to relax current laws that prohibit tolls on U.S. highways.

The state is seeking revenue to make up an $86 billion shortfall preventing Texas from improving highways.

Williamson, a Republican, has proposed buying back federal highways and turning them over to private entities to levy a toll that would produce money to improve and expand infrastructure.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Williamson say a decision to toll an existing highway or road should rest with the local taxpayer, not federal officials.

Decisions on how to use existing highways "would be better made in San Antonio and San Angelo than in Washington," said Chris Lippincott, a Texas Department of Transportation spokesman.

Pennsylvania also is eyeing plans to toll Interstate 80, as well as other revenue enhancing measures being studied by Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat.

"The real problem is, we don't have sufficient resources and our infrastructure is falling apart across the country," Rodriguez said.

But Rodriguez said the state should not penalize Texas taxpayers and make them pay twice for federal roads that were built with public funds.

"Those roads have already been paid for," Rodriguez said.

Hutchison and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, are opposed to the state's tolling existing federal highways. Hutchison vowed to block any effort to lift current prohibitions to the practice.

The entire South Texas congressional delegation opposes the state plan.

Rodriguez said he asked Williamson to list the state's most dire transportation needs.

If those issues cannot be addressed in supplemental spending bill, the state could be forced to wait until Congress takes up the reauthorization of the transportation bill next year, Rodriguez said.

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