Highway Toll Increases, Diversions Prompt Senate Hearing

Published June 8, 2012

Highway toll revenues are increasingly being diverted to pay for projects and other expenses unrelated to roads, bridges, and tunnels used by motorists who pay the tolls, the nation’s largest auto club says.

The diversion of tolls for unrelated projects undermines the “user pays” principle behind transportation tolls and weakens public support for them, said Chris Plaushin, director of federal relations for AAA, during testimony at a hearing of the federal Highway Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

A bill introduced by Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) would give the U.S. Secretary of Transportation the power to reject toll increases on highways and bridges that receive federal aid if they are judged to be excessive.

Plaushin and a trucking official said they support the bill, but an official representing state departments of transportation expressed concern it would hinder the ability of states to pay for transportation needs.

‘Accountability Is Needed’

“We’re not anti-tolling but we think some accountability in the process is needed,” Plaushin testified.

The hearing came as a result of toll hikes approved last year by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It now costs as much as $12 for motorists paying cash rather than using an automated toll system to cross between New York and New Jersey. By 2015 a trip from Baltimore to New York will cost a five-axle truck more than $209 in tolls, testified Steve Grabell, chief financial officer of the New Jersey trucking firm NFI, who testified on behalf of the trucking industry.

Seton Motley, president of Less Government, which advocates smaller, less centralized government, said roads should be handled on a state-by-state basis, because that’s where the users live. Most Kansas residents, for example, won’t be using roads on the coasts. So there shouldn’t be federal taxes to pay for local roads, says Seton.

‘Playing With Money’

Federal, state, and local taxes, as well as tolls, often get siphoned off for parks, public transportation, and other projects, he said.

“They are playing with other people’s money,” Motley said. “That’s one reason there needs to be smaller government, so that we can keep an eye on government spending. The larger the government, the more bureaucrats there are and the harder it is to dig down and see where funds are being spent.”

Taxes can be used for other projects if the uses are clearly spelled out and voters approve the taxes, Motley added. So voters in some municipal areas might approve higher taxes to pay for public transportation projects, for example.

But there needs to be true transparency for the actual use of the tax and toll funds, Motley said, echoing some of the AAA testimony.