Thursday, March 6, 2014

Don’t let them get their way

If the pro-toll lobbyists are successful, we should probably just fire up the handbasket.

If they get their way, mobility as we know it will never be the same.

Toll agencies, think tanks and technology vendors are among those converging in D.C. for a big conference on Monday and Tuesday, and they have an agenda. They have plans to toll America.

“We’ve always had toll roads, so what’s a few more?” some might ask.

This is not about a few more toll roads, and these are not small-time people.

You will likely come across the name IBTTA – the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. They’re the owners, operators and toll vendors who are making the big push for Congress to lift restrictions on tolling. They want the go-ahead to slap tolls on as many roads as they can, even interstate highways.

And Congress is particularly vulnerable right now. Many key lawmakers are simply not interested in raising fuel taxes – the tried-and-true method of paying for highways and bridges since Eisenhower.

Had fuel-tax rates actually kept up with inflation since they were last increased in 1993, the National Highway System would be in tremendous shape. In fact, the highway fund would probably have a healthy surplus the way it did back then.

If fuel taxes are indeed off the table in the next highway bill, lawmakers will continue to look for alternatives.

The toll road lobby is swooping in to grease some palms and sell the idea of toll roads.

Simply put, tolls are taxes on mobility. This is especially true for truckers who pay considerable amounts to use the roadway system. The average motorist currently pays about $95 a year in fuel taxes to use the nation’s roads and bridges, whereas it wouldn’t be a stretch for truckers to pay $4,000 to $6,000 just in fuel taxes. That number would be much higher for those buying new equipment and paying the 12 percent excise tax.

When considering tolls as a tax on mobility, we rarely hear anyone talk about reducing or waiving the fuel tax for the miles truckers and motorists travel on toll roads. Why not? This should definitely be part of the conversation.

“But tolls are not taxes, they’re user fees,” you say? Perhaps that’s true by court definition, but a toll still comes directly out of the user’s pocket.

Another problem with toll roads is the separation between the government and the authorized toll agency that can pretty much hold a ceremonial public meeting and increase tolls whenever they want. I’m generalizing here, as some states have laws that require legislative action on toll increases.

But many times, the taxpayer is left with no choice but to pay the toll. They can’t vote out a toll agency or its leadership because those are not elected positions.

What can we do to counteract the toll road lobbyists?

We start by establishing relationships and educating elected officials at the local, state and federal level. That way, when we call them and urge them to vote a certain way, they know who they are talking to.

There are lawmakers willing to go to the mat to preserve toll-free, taxpayer-funded roads and fight back against the toll lobby and the big money behind it.

Find out who they are and keep them on speed dial.