Clinton plan would allow tolls on interstates

WASHINGTON (AP) –President Clinton’s $175 billion program for new highway projects could hit some of America’s drivers in the pocketbook: To help foot the bill, the plan would allow states to charge tolls on interstate highways.
But Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater is playing down the change.
Slater said that while the bill does give states permission to charge tolls on existing sections of the interstate system it is only “a modest change” from previous policy.
“We do not believe a lot of states will take advantage of it, but clearly they should have the opportunity,” Slater said at a news conference at the Transportation Department.
Mortimer Downey, the department’s No. 2 official, said the change was made in response to requests by some states for another source of revenue for state and city transportation projects.
Downey said existing law requires all such tolls to be “just and reasonable.”
At present, tolls are permitted on highways now used as interstates that were built entirely with state revenues before the creation of the Interstate Highway System in 1956. An example: the New Jersey Turnpike.
Another exception would be certain new construction of an interstate segment such as a new bridge.
Bill Fay, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, called granting permission for states to collect tolls on existing segments of the interstate network built after 1956 an example of “double taxation.”
“Those highways have already been paid for by taxpayers,” he said. “To toll an interstate is like asking you to pay rent on property you already own.”
Fay also complained that the bill diverts dollars away from the highway trust fund to subsidize Amtrak, the national rail system, instead paying for needed roads and bridges.
“In that sense it’s highway robbery,” he said.
The legislation, which would authorize surface-transportation spending over the next six years, also offers a new formula to allocate money to states.
Slater said the new allocation would increase highway dollars for every state but Massachusetts, which he said received substantial federal aid for highways over the last six years.
This section of the bill is sure to be controversial on Capitol Hill because the new formula does not end the situation in which so-called donor states pay out more in fuel taxes than they get back from Washington in transportation spending.
But while he defended the new formulas as “a proper balance,” he conceded that they are only the starting point.
“We have stepped forward to try to bridge the breach,” he said. “This is a starting point, not concrete tablets. We know the Congress will have a lot to say about this.”
As it enters the starting gate of the congressional process, the bill is free of any earmarks for so-called demonstration projects for individual congressional districts. Many critics call such projects wasteful “pork” that skirts the state-federal selection process for new highway projects.
But department officials acknowledged demonstration projects are likely to be added as the House and Senate transportation committees begin their consideration of the bill.
Responding to questions, Downey said that as a spending bill the legislation would be subject to President Clinton’s new authority to veto individual projects he deems wasteful or unneeded.