ATA and NATSO say the public dislikes tolls, and for good reason. (Photo by Jim Park)

ATA and NATSO say the public dislikes tolls, and for good reason. (Photo by Jim Park)

Two trucking organizations have slammed a new study released last week that calls for placing tolls on the nation’s Interstate system as a way to pay for improvements and repairs. 

The American Trucking Associations says the report from the libertarian/right leaning think-tank the Reason Foundation makes several false assumption on how useful tolls could be to funding infrastructure investments, understates public opposition to tolling and plays down safety and other risks of increased tolling,

“Despite what toll advocates and financiers try and tell the public, tolling existing interstates is a wildly unpopular concept,” says ATA President and CEO Bill Graves. “Voters and lawmakers in Virginia and North Carolina have demonstrated this vividly in recent months. The public continues to see tolls as an intrusive and inefficient tax.”

The group representing truckstops and travel plazas, NATSO, also issued a strong rebuke of the study. The group said the study claims motorists prefer tolls to higher fuel taxes, but it notes this is based on surveys asking about tolls only on newly built lanes, not on existing interstates. 

"The public detests interstate tolls and with good reason," said NATSO president and CEO Lisa Mullings. "Tolls divert motorists and truck drivers to non-interstates, leading to more traffic deaths. Additionally, it costs the government more money to collect tolls than to collect fuel taxes."

The Reason Foundation study says over the next two decades most of the aging Interstate highway system will need to be reconstructed and will cost approximately $1 trillion -- nearly $600 billion in rebuilding costs plus $400 billion to add capacity. It says the price tag could be covered almost entirely by toll revenues generated by charging drivers and truckers via all-electronic toll collection on the rebuilt Interstates. 

ATA says despite having the authority to toll existing Interstates since 1991, no state has done so (other than HOV lanes) due to public opposition.

“It’s preposterous to assume that the public would ever accept tolls on the entire system when states can’t get them to go along with tolling even a single highway,” the group said in a statement.

“We know our infrastructure needs are great, but we can’t be wooed by the siren song of alleged ‘tax-free’ funding,” said ATA first vice chairman Phil Byrd, president of the motor carrier Bulldog Hiway Express, Charleston, S.C.

“Tolls are just another name for a tax, one that provides quite a lot of money for government bureaucrats and Wall Street financiers, and is an extremely expensive way to fund highway improvements,” he says. “We should instead focus on the reliable, traditional financing methods, such as the fuel tax, that built our great Interstate system to improve and maintain that system. Our leaders simply need to have the political will to do the right thing regarding these methods.”

NATSO says The Reason Foundation's report mischaracterizes why three states that have been granted conditional approval to implement interstate tolling under a federal pilot program have not moved forward.

“The report claims Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri have not ‘solved the political problem of getting legislative approval to go forward.’ The fact is the legislature in each of the states killed the tolling initiatives, citing overwhelming public opposition to it,” says NATSO. 

"It is not a 'political problem' when citizens urge their elected officials to reject a proposal that would, if enacted, effectively tax them twice," Mullings says.