The March 31 deadline has come and gone for states to apply for a federal pilot program that lets them put tolls on existing interstates, and it appears no states applied. But industry observers say that doesn't mean highway users can breathe a sigh of relief.
Arkansas, Pennsylvania and South Carolina had expressed interest in the program, with the biggest threat coming from the Arkansas Highway Commission. When Gov. Mike Huckabee signed state legislation calling for a bond vote and an increase in diesel and gas taxes, the commission backed off and said tolls would not be necessary.
However, if the bond issue does not pass during June's special election, the Highway Commission may again pursue the possibility of interstate tolls.
The anti-toll coalition Citizens for Safe and Efficient Highways recently polled Arkansas voters about the bond referendum. "Barely over 50% in the polls support it," says Eric Schlect of the National Taxpayers Union. "Historically, when you poll for a referendum issue, you need at least two-thirds approval in the polls to pass, because the tendency is for people to get to the polling place and say well, maybe not."
Schlect says commission members have said they will revisit the idea of tolls if the bond issue fails. Although the deadline is past, Schlect and people inside the American Trucking Assns. expect the federal government to extend it since there were no takers.
"It would certainly take little effort to push forward that date," Schlect says. "It was clearly something the administration wanted, or else they wouldn't have inserted it in the transportation spending bill. The fact that the deadline has come and gone does not make me rest at ease that this issue is dead."