Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Transportation Secretary LaHood says federal government sees no problem with tolling existing highways.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood: 'We believe in tolling,' says U.S. open to tolling existing interstates


By Michael Lindenberger
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2011

Officials want to add toll lanes to the highway between Dallas and Denton. But with Washington open to tolling existing interstate main lanes, too, and traffic bad on I-35E from Denton to San Antonio, it's only a matter of time before someone asks why Texas hasn't sought permission to make I-35E a toll road.

Would the federal government allow Texas to toll all the lanes on Interstate 35E between Dallas and San Antonio to speed up the hugely expensive (and badly needed) reconstruction of that interstate? It might. That's the only possible conclusion after remarks by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Wednesday, in which he declared once again that Washington is big on toll roads.

To toll an existing interstate -- or to build a new one with tolls -- a state has to get permission from Uncle Sam, and Texas has never asked to toll Interstate 35E headed to Austin. And it's only fair to add that even the toll-road loving Texas Department of Transportation has set down in its own rules a prohibition of tolling existing highways.

This post shouldn't be read as an argument for tolling Interstate 35E. The very idea will send plenty of drivers into fits of rage -- and given that I drive that road often, I might be one of them. But policy makers continually say that every option ought to be on the table, and it's clear to me that with LaHood's comments today, this is at least an idea that will draw some discussion.

Money is tight across Texas, and North Texas officials are lining up to twist lawmakers' arms for permission to add toll lanes alongside I-35E from Dallas to Denton. Is it such a stretch to go one step further and ask Uncle Sam for permission to just toll all existing lanes between here and Austin or San Antonio.

Doing so would leave more state and federal tax money to spend to fight congestion in cities like Dallas.

Let's look at it another way: The Pegasus Project in Dallas is badly needed, and entirely unfunded. It's likely to cost billions, and it's layout makes it a terrible prospect for tolling itself. But what would leaders here say if the state offered to shift the tax dollars away from Interstate 35E's widening to the Pegasus Project in Dallas?

You couldn't take tolls off I-35E and use them in Dallas, since federal law requires that even if the FHWA grants permission to toll a road, all the money has to be used on that road itself.

What flushed these thoughts were comments made by LaHood, captured by my friend and former colleague Marcus Green of The Courier-Journal in Louisville. Green reports that LaHood said the federal government sees no problem with tolling existing highways. "We believe in tolling," LaHood was quoted in Green's story. "I think if states come to us with good plans, we will look at them very carefully."

LaHood was speaking to state highway officials at an AASHTO event, and was explaining that the government had turned down Pennsylvania's proposal to toll more than 300 miles of Interstate 80 only because the plan would have used the money for other needs, and not just to pay for improvements to the turnpike. (Rendell argued for tolls on existing highways when he was in Texas in January. You might remember, too, that Rendell was behind a $16 billion deal to privatize the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but it was state lawmakers who killed that deal.)

AASHTO gave Green a transcript of LaHood's comments. LaHood said: "Tolling has to be a part of the mix. You can raise a lot of money with tolls and if states decide that's the way they want to go ... as long as you're building more capacity, that's really what we're going to look at."

That's not exactly a shift in position. LaHood, a Republican, has been in favor of tolling since before President Obama named him transportation secretary. He's in favor of greater use of private equity to finance toll deals, too. Perhaps more to the point, federal law has for decades allowed tolling even on interstates, but with big restrictions.

There are two programs that allow tolling on interstates (and a third that deals with non-interstates), one for new interstates and one for reconstruction of existing interstates. Two of the three available slots under the program that allows the use of tolls to fund reconstruction or rehabilitation of an existing interstate are already taken. (Pennsylvania would have been the third.)

Only one state -- South Carolina -- has been approved to build a new interstate using tolls.

Kentucky and Indiana are jointly developing a $4 billion-plus project to put two new spans over the Ohio River at Louisville. I've followed it closely, and that project is as broke as most of the nation's not-yet-underway big-ticket transportation projects. It's at least even money those states will ask for permission to toll existing interstate bridges to fund the new bridge.

So, you know, there is still room for Texas to get on the list, but probably not for long.

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