Transportation Policy Academy 2013 – DC – Part 10: Listening Session at U.S. Department of Transportation with Under Secretary for Policy Polly Trottenberg

The CSG Transportation Policy Academy in Washington, DC wrapped up with attendees visiting the U.S. Department of Transportation. DOT officials including Under Secretary for Policy Polly Trottenberg fielded questions from state legislators on such topics as the federal ban on interstate tolling, state transportation funding initiatives and the prospects for MAP-21 reauthorization next year.

Trottenberg said the idea of overturning the ban on interstate tolling has proven controversial internally at USDOT and on Capitol Hill.

“I think as a policy matter there are sort of three questions in the air. One is could we just lift the ban on interstate tolls for the states. It was put in the original Eisenhower legislation and personally I think it was a huge mistake. It’s particularly quirky in that there are a few parts (of the country) particularly on the East Coast where there were tolls pre-1956 and so those tolls exist and the states get the benefits of those tolls. But there is still a political perception that hangs in the air for a lot of folks in Washington that we’ve paid for the system. We pay for it through gas taxes and putting tolls on it would be charging people twice. The truth is at this point we don’t pay for it through gas taxes and the system has to be rebuilt. It’s 50 or 60 years old in a lot of places.”

“I think there is a desire to show more leadership but this is something that also has to be a little grass roots. I mean we need to hear from legislators at the state level and the Congressional level and from governors that there’s a real appetite to do this. It is not likely to bubble up spontaneously in Washington unless there is a feeling that the important political leaders around the country are really going to make use of it. … We’ve had this three-state pilot project and as you know it has not gotten off the ground. Two states—Virginia and North Carolina—were really looking into doing it and have run into tough sledding. This is something where I think everyone is going to have to walk together to make it happen. It’s not just going to happen at the federal level.”

“Then the second question, which is … if you could ever make it happen, what would be the requirements and restrictions behind it? That too produces a huge amount of debate. I mean there’s some who say if you’re going to allow tolling on the interstate, the money has to stay on the interstate. It can only be used either for maintaining and repairing that interstate or expanding capacity. There is a much more expansive view which is perhaps in congested urban areas (where expanding interstate capacity isn’t possible) some of those revenues should be open to (being used) for other transportation solutions. It could be a transit solution or some kind of a technological capacity management. … And I honestly think politically that if you’re ever going to get sort of a broad coalition of support to do tolling of the interstates, you have to have an urban solution, which is not just expand your interstates because a lot of urban areas, they don’t want to expand their interstates or they don’t have room to. They’ve done enough road building and there’s no more room.”

“One of the toughest things about tolling existing capacity is that you are taking what was free and now trying to make people pay for it and that is always such a tough sell versus at least we’re giving you HOT lanes or we’re going to give you a new expanded interstate. I think that is part of the reason why this is not sort of like an eagle here inside D.C.”

“We are facing as you well know … a convergence of a couple of very painful demographic trends. When the infrastructure is really aging in a lot of cases and needs to be replaced. Massachusetts is a good example. It is way cheaper to replace it than it was to build it in the first place for a variety of reasons. Meanwhile, we were lucky at the federal level and in a lot of the states too. Gas taxes didn’t need to go up much because driving was going (up). Vehicle miles traveled were going up exponentially every 10 years and so it was sort of de facto indexing. Now … the revenues in the Highway Trust Fund at the federal level are stagnant and just the maintenance costs of the existing system are skyrocketing let alone things like what you want to do out west—adding new pieces of interstate. We certainly agree there should be an interstate between Phoenix and Las Vegas. They were small cities back in the ‘50s and now they’re two enormously important cities. But finding the revenue for that is incredibly difficult.”

“We feel like at the federal level if we ever can come up with sort of a legislative agreement to lift the ban, we would try to mandate that it be open tolling, that it would use the kind of technology where you would have to have sort of an EZPass type thing. Now the technology has greatly reduced the cost and the backups. One thing we are wary of though—and we gave Virginia and North Carolina a brief about this … one of the concerns that’s talked about here is: is tolling a barrier to interstate commerce? That was part of the original goal of building the interstate system. So understanding the local politics at work, trying to just toll people from other states and not toll your own people … If we allow a state to do tolling, are we going to say ‘no, you’ve got to have a certain number of toll collection points throughout the state. It can’t just be at the border.”

Trottenberg also weighed in on transportation funding plans approved this year in Virginia and Maryland.

“We really have praised Virginia and Maryland and some great leadership there and some political bravery and bipartisanship. … I think we’re craving to certainly have that kind of a coming together at the federal level. … People I think like the optics of getting rid of a gas tax and going to a sales tax. … I live in Maryland. How did they sell us on (the transportation package) there? Well there’s a list of projects. In particular in Maryland there’s a couple of big transit projects, the Purple Line and the Red Line, that a lot of the folks in the D.C. suburban area and the Baltimore area—the big population centers in Maryland—wanted. They promised ‘hey, if you vote for this package, we’re going to build those two transit lines.’ At the federal level I think we struggle in that we have less of a specific slate of tangible projects to sell and if you do opinion polls, a lot of people at the federal level, they’re very unclear about and they have incredible misperceptions. They think they pay twice as much in gas taxes as they do.”

Finally, Trottenberg noted that recent bipartisan cooperation in Congress on the water resources bill has prompted some optimism about the prospects for MAP-21 reauthorization next year. But she also warned that the task of coming up with a revenue fix for the Highway Trust Fund is daunting.

“The water resources bill, despite the fact that I think seven or nine conservative groups including Heritage Action wrote a fiery letter saying what horrible pork this is, passed the House of Representatives 417 to 3. I don’t think there’s a single vote I can think of really in the last five years that’s had such an overwhelming vote in the House. I think that shows fundamentally (with) transportation and infrastructure there is a lot of bipartisan support for it. So that’s the good news. And look, MAP-21 passed a year and a half ago and that was really one of the few bills to pass at that time in Congress. It is an area where even though there’s a lot of pretty bitter divisions right now here in Washington, I think that’s one of the areas where we’re still pretty bipartisan. But the funding challenge is just profound. … And the demographic trends that are hitting us in transportation, which is vehicle miles traveled are declining and we haven’t raised the gas tax in 20 years and the costs of maintaining the system are going up and meanwhile we do have population growth and we sort of are hit by all these trends. But that’s true in health care, that’s true in education. We’re focused in our world but if you’re in Congress or The White House, you’ve got 20 areas where the demographic trends are catching up. Within this department I think we remain relentless advocates for trying to find some good policy solutions and hopefully someday some good funding solutions. … We’ll have to see.”