Thursday, February 1, 2018

Ask not for whom the toll tolls -- Feb. 1, 2018 column


President Donald Trump waxed almost-poetic in his State of the Union speech about rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

“Together, we can reclaim our great building heritage. We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways, all across our land,” he said Tuesday night.

Sounds good, but don’t let the bling distract you. Somebody has to pay for those gleaming new roads. Don’t be surprised if tolls are the price of convenience and safety.

In Northern Virginia, you could buy a nice restaurant meal for what it costs to drive alone for a few miles at rush hour.

Solo motorists who hopped on I-66 at 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 24, a Wednesday, paid $46.75 in tolls to drive from Washington’s Beltway to Rosslyn or Washington – a trip of nine miles.

The toll was among the highest since Dec. 4, when tolls began on the express lanes, radio station WTOP reported, adding the Virginia Department of Transportation, which owns and operates the express lanes, says the system is working as designed.

Under what’s called dynamic pricing, tolls change every six minutes, rising to discourage drivers from using the lanes to keep traffic flowing. Tolls vary quite a bit. The estimated toll at 8:30 a.m. Thursday for a solo driver going the same nine miles was $22.25.

Those traveling with two or more people still ride free, but all solo drivers must pay, even those in hybrid vehicles or en route to or from Dulles International Airport. Express lane toll hours on I-66 inside the Beltway are 3 to 7 p.m. westbound and 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. eastbound Monday through Friday.

Efforts are underway in the Virginia General Assembly to limit I-66 tolls. If Congress goes along with Trump’s infrastructure plan, though, motorists can expect more tolls down the road, so to speak.  

Infrastructure is supposed to be an area of bipartisan support, but as usual the devil is in the . . . politics.

President Barack Obama tried repeatedly to pass infrastructure bills, only to hit Republican roadblocks. Trump has been talking about his big infrastructure plans since the campaign.

When Hillary Clinton proposed $275 billion in federal infrastructure spending over five years, Trump saw her bid and more than doubled it.

“Her number is a fraction of what we’re talking about,” Trump said in an August 2016 interview with Fox Business. “I would say at least double her numbers, but you’re going to really need a lot more than that.”

Trump urged Congress Tuesday to work together to pass a bill for “at least $1.5 trillion” for infrastructure. Details will be released in coming weeks, but the administration is expected to propose contributing $200 billion in federal funds over 10 years and to leverage the rest from state and local governments and the private sector.

Now Democrats are balking.

“A nothing burger” is how Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, described Trump’s infrastructure remarks.

“President Trump cannot pretend to solve our infrastructure woes by slashing real investments to states and local governments, pushing the responsibility off federal balance sheets, cutting existing transportation programs to pay for Wall Street and foreign investors to toll our roads, and gutting bedrock environmental protections,” DeFazio said in a statement.

A leaked memo of principles for the administration’s infrastructure bill, obtained by The Hill newspaper, contends states should be given the “flexibility” to collect tolls and use the revenue to invest in infrastructure projects. States were banned from tolling on interstates in 1956, with some exceptions for states already collecting tolls on some highways.

But the trucking industry and other transportation groups object to higher tolls. The memo didn’t mention raising the gas tax, which has not increased since 1993.

“If Trump relies on the private sector and forcing states and localities to come up with their own funding, Trump’s infrastructure plan could result in a patchwork of tolls that span coast to coast,” said Stephanie Kane, spokesperson for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, in a statement.

Everybody likes the idea of gleaming new roads and safer bridges, and nobody enjoys paying tolls. Don’t spend your tax cut just yet. You may need it.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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