Despite early indications that the Obama Administration did not want to follow the toll road policies of the previous administration, the US Department of Transportation is spending millions in federal taxpayer dollars to encourage states to impose tolls on new and existing roads. On Monday, the DOT published formal rules for states interested in applying to receive $1.5 billion in federal tax grants under the new “Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery” program. “TIGER discretionary funding will open up the door to many new innovative and cutting-edge transportation projects,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.
The rule published in the Federal Register gave as examples of “innovative” projects those that use “dynamic pricing” and “radio frequency identification (RFID)” tracking devices on vehicles. The notice goes on to explain that grant applicants must have “legislative authority to charge user fees or set toll rate” if the project involves tolling.
LaHood also announced last Thursday that the department would bankroll a number of toll road feasibility studies using $6 million in federal gas tax dollars under the department’s Value Pricing Program.
In the San Francisco, California Bay Area, $3.2 million would be spent to encourage tolls on State Route 237. In Washington state, $1.3 million would be spent on a study of tolling in the Puget Sound region. In Minnesota, federal taxpayers would pay $400,000 to create a study showing the benefits of imposing tolls on Interstate 94. Finally, $717,000 in federal tax dollars would be spent on a study of GPS-based per-mile tolling for trucks in New York.
The latter grant is unusual because the White House explicitly backed away from the concept of nationwide per-mile taxes when LaHood first floated the idea in February.
“I can weigh in on it and say that it is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration,” Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on February 20.
Prior to the White House policy statement, LaHood had been quite explicit in his support for a policy of imposing tolls on drivers with rhetoric indistinguishable from that of his predecessor, former Transportation Secretary Mary Peters. Now LaHood is once again providing vocal support for tolls. Last week he sent a signal to the New York state legislature and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to revive the failed effort to impose a tax of up to $22 for cars and trucks entering downtown Manhattan. In an interview with NY1 News, LaHood promised that the $350 million in federal tax money would be available as a financial reward if the city imposes the toll.
“The money that was going to be provided for that particular project is still at the Department of Transportation,” LaHood told NY1. “If New York got its act together around that kind of opportunity, I think we would look at it.”