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Trucks-Only Tolling a Disturbing Trend

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Two more states may follow the lead of Rhode Island by imposing tolls (or increased toll rates) on heavy trucks, so as to invest the proceeds in highway improvements that will benefit all highway users. A study under way by Virginia DOT on improvements to I-81 has suggested up to $3 billion worth of improvements, with truck-only tolls as part of the funding package. And in Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb is proceeding with a plan to increase truck tolls on the Indiana Toll Road to pay for $1 billion worth of infrastructure improvements.
On tolled highways, heavy trucks generally pay toll rates that are three to four times the rate paid by passenger vehicles. That may or may not be enough to cover the full costs of the wear and tear caused by the heaviest vehicles, but the principle that trucks should pay more than cars is long-established. However, Rhode Island’s Rhode Works plan imposes tolls only on heavy trucks to pay for an array of bridge improvements, on both Interstates and non-Interstates. FHWA approved this, under a provision of USC Title 23, Section 129 that permits the replacement of non-tolled bridges on Interstates with tolled bridges. The American Trucking Associations recently filed suit in federal court, on grounds that singling out heavy trucks to pay tolls discriminates against them and is, therefore, an interference with interstate commerce under the Constitution. ATA has not objected to the underlying statute that permits toll-financed replacements for non-tolled Interstate bridges.
Virginia DOT has a study under way, as requested by recent state legislation, on possible improvements to I-81, and potential sources of funding. So far, the study has come up with some $3 billion in possible improvements, though surprisingly these include adding a third lane each way on less than 10 percent of this critically important truck route. Up to 40 percent of the traffic on I-81 in Virginia is semi-trucks, and FHWA projections indicate much higher truck traffic over the next 20 years.
I-81 is an obvious candidate for dedicated truck lanes along its full length in Virginia. In Reason Foundation’s 2013 Interstate 2.0 study, our analysis of FHWA Freight Analysis Framework data identified I-81 as one of the four multi-state corridors most needing dedicated truck lanes in coming decades (along with I-40, I-70, and I-80). All users of I-81 would benefit from the addition of DTLs, so all should pay tolls to cover the costs of this addition. In its un-wisdom, the Virginia legislature excluded all-vehicle tolling from the scope of the current I-81 study. So in addition to truck-only tolls, the funding sources being looked into are a regional gas tax and a retail sales tax. At the maximum levels being considered, the tolls/gas-tax/sales-tax combination is estimated to generate $370 million per year. What ever happened to users-pay/users-benefit?
The Indiana plan apparently does not require legislation. The state has negotiated with the Indiana Toll Road Concession Company to make three annual payments to the state over three years totaling $1 billion, which the company will recover via a 35 percent increase in tolls paid by trucks, from Class 3 (e.g., dump trucks) through Class 8 (e.g., 18-wheelers). The state plans to use the billion dollars on infrastructure improvements as follows:

  • $600 million to complete the missing link in I-69;
  • $190 million for upgrades to three state highways;
  • $100 million for a new program of grants for broadband; and,
  • $20 million to assist Indianapolis International Airport to expand international service.

Once again, the principle of users-pay/users-benefit is being seriously breached—and this in the state that has been shaping up as having the most comprehensive approach to toll-financed reconstruction and modernization of its aging Interstate highways.
Toll revenues should be used to provide improved highway infrastructure for those who pay the tolls. Singling out trucks is bad policy, per se. But it also risks further alienating the trucking industry from the best hope for rebuilding and modernizing the Interstate highway network that they depend on—toll-financed replacement of the original 1950s system.
(This article first ran in the September issue of Surface Transportation Innovations.)
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