AASHTO Journal, 20 April 2012
North Carolina Department of Transportation Secretary Eugene Conti, testifying on behalf of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, this week told a Senate subcommittee that a crisis in transportation funding due to declining gas tax revenue is creating deep concern at all levels of government about the outlook for adequate funding for maintenance and capacity improvements in highway and transit assets in the United States.
The Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security convened a hearing Wednesday entitled, “Protecting Commuters: Ensuring Accountability and Oversight in Tolling.” The hearing explored the use of tolls on the nation’s bridges and tunnels, the need for transparency and accountability by the entities that set toll rates, and the need for equity among commuters, businesses, and the traveling public who use tolled facilities.
Subcommittee Chairman Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, last year introduced S. 2006 the Commuter Protection Act, prompted by toll increases in the New York metropolitan region, arguing that there is a need for federal oversight to make sure toll revenue is being used appropriately (see AJ story, bit.ly/HWlwOl).
“We have to be careful about how we use this toll revenue,” Sen. Lautenberg said. “I think we are agreed that in some places they (toll revenues) are desperately needed. But they have to be fair and reasonable.”
Conti’s testimony explained that AASHTO’s Board of Directors supports the adoption of a diversified portfolio of state revenue options, including tolling, that would allow states to meet their program funding needs.
Conti said that AASHTO is concerned that S. 2006 would insert new federal oversight into toll setting processes. The additional oversight could discourage the use of tolls in innovative finance and create an impediment in developing innovative financing opportunities.
However, Conti acknowledged that, “We recognize that seeking greater federal flexibility for tolling activities entail states and local partners to ensure that such programs are implemented with maximum accountability, transparency, and equity.”
North Carolina, along with Missouri and Virginia, was selected under the Federal Highway Administration Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program, which allows the three states to pursue tolling on existing interstates (see AJ story, bit.ly/yG2Fs4).
In developing its tolling plan, North Carolina has spent 30 months reaching out to potentially affected communities and groups, including an economic impact study.
While North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue has not given final approval to the tolling plan, “We’ve gone beyond the traditional project development process to address the economic impact along the corridor of I-95,” Conti said. “We are doing the detailed work that needs to be done in a transparent way.”
Others testifying before the committee included Bill Baroni, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey deputy executive director; Steve Grabell, National Freight Inc. chief financial officer; and, Chris Plaushin, AAA vice president for public affairs.