ATA Attacks Toll Plans

ATA Attacks Toll Plans

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

A legislative move to allow tolls on existing interstate highways has united the trucking industry like nothing this side of an increase in fuel tax.

Leaders of virtually every major trucking organization are sending a letter to congressional transport leaders deriding an idea that they claim is double taxation, dangerous to the economic rebound and generally unwise.

"While we recognize the need for additional highway investment, we believe that tolling existing interstate highways is an inappropriate mechanism with problematic and unacceptable side effects," said the letter signed by American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves. It is co-signed by a score of his trucking association colleagues and 50 state trucking association executives.

The truckers say converting interstates to toll roads would push many motorists to local roads that are at least four times as dangerous as interstates. Tolls also could increase congestion and escalate maintnance costs on such roads, they said.

The letter went to Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and other members of committees concerned with highway spending.

The proposed use of tolls arose during House-Senate deliberations over the six-year highway bill. Tolls entered the picture because Republican leaders rejected Young''s proposal to index the fuel tax to inflation. That tax, now 24.4 cents on diesel and 18.4 cents on gasoline, has not been raised since 1993. Young''s idea would have resulted in about a seven-cent increase in the fuel tax immediately, with the tax pegged to inflation in the future.

Legislators were struggling to forge a compromise between the $318 billion Senate bill and a $284 billion House version. President Bush has indicated he will veto any bill over $256 billion.

Some 66 percent of Americans oppose installing tolls on already completed interstates, according to a survey of 800 likely voters by Public Opinion Strategies in a poll taken in January.

The idea of hitting the trucking industry with tolls to operate on "free" interstates is an anathema to drivers and industry executives. They estimate the potential cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

"This is insanity," said Jon Shevell, executive vice chairman of New England Motor Freight, a major Northeast regional LTL carrier. "We already operate in the highest-cost region in the country. We already pay more money in tolls here than anyplace else. And they want to expand that? It''s nuts."

The ATA says the economic impact would extend to truck stops, hotels and motels, markets, restaurants and gas stations. "Tolls, and the traffic diversion that comes with them, will negatively impact the ability of these companies to financially survive," the truckers'' letter says. "Furthermore, these businesses are often the largest nonfarm employers in rural communities, and their demise might also spell economic disaster for local populations."

Truckers note that motorists and users already have financed road construction through fuel taxes and other highway user fees. Imposing tolls on top of these taxes represents a form of double taxation that is "unfair, inefficient and unacceptable,'''' they say.

The House recently endorsed tolls as an option for financing new interstate highway capacity, but rejected tolls on the existing system. The Senate did not take such action.

States, counties and municipalities already are experimenting with tolls and considering plans that would include tolls in upgrades of interstates. A facelift for I-81 in Virginia could include toll lanes that residents in communities along the interstate fear could flood adjacent U.S. 11, with truck traffic.

The trucking industry isn''t necessarily opposed to placing tolls on new roads, or even truck-only toll lanes on some roads. However residents of towns near interstates are leery of the impact. "It''s risky getting out of the driveway," McCoy Hill, a resident of Mount Sidney, Va., told the Staunton News Leader.