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New Ways to Finance Transportation Through Tolling Existing Highways

Road tool booth funding

By Yonah Freemark

Though the U.S. Interstate Highway Act was passed almost 60 years ago, the financing mechanism by which the nation's most important roadways are built and maintained has remained largely the same. The federal and state governments collect user fees from motorists through fuel taxes and then distribute those funds to infrastructure investments.

Unfortunately, years of declining vehicle miles travelled, better fuel efficiency and the failure of political actors to win consensus around increasing fuel taxes has resulted in declining funds for transportation. The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) advocates for a constructive discussion on identifying new funds for highway and public transportation investments, but it has also been working to develop new innovative financing programs that move away from traditional forms of transportation revenues.

Sens. Mark Kirk (D-Ill.) and Mark Warner (D-Vir.) introduced a bipartisan bill last week called the Highway Innovation Act of 2014 that would advance one such innovative financing program.

If passed, the act would increase the flexibility of states to toll their Interstate Highways, a funding strategy that is mostly banned under current law. Specifically, the bill would expand the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program (ISRRPP), which allows states to toll existing interstate facilities. Currently, the law only allows three states (Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia) to toll such roads, but the Kirk and Warner bill would increase the pilot to 10 states.

The bill also would expand the Value Pricing Pilot Program (VPPP) from 15 states to all states. VPPP was initially established in 1991 and allows states to use congestion pricing strategies on their roads. Minnesota used VPPP to convert nine miles of underutilized carpool lanes on I-394 to toll lanes in 2005; the project has been so successful that the financing strategy was extended to another highway, I-35W.

For several years, MPC has been engaging with local, state and federal officials to advance similar reforms, as they will increase the capacity of the Chicago region to address its critical transportation needs. The Kirk and Warner bill is an important step forward in encouraging this process.

Photo Credit: Funding by Toll Booth/shutterstock