Blog LaHood: Mileage Charge, P3s, Expanded Tolling All Possible

In a significant return to a controversial topic – the positive mention of which once earned him a sharp public rebuke from President Barack Obama’s press secretary – U.S. Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood today in Chicago reiterated the possibility of vehicle mileage fees to help pay for mounting U.S. surface transportation needs. His remarks indicate a softening of Obama’s official position against the idea. Underscoring evolving bipartisan support, Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica, the ranking minority member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, explains to a Florida paper today why the mileage tax makes sense, long-term. No such policy will be enacted anytime very soon, but could begin to move more seriously toward eventual mainstream adoption as part of a broader surface transportation bill reauthorization with which Congress will grapple after the 2010 mid-term elections. LaHood today also reiterated earlier conceptual support he expressed on the administration’s behalf for several other next-generation funding tools, including expanded electronic, time-variable tolling and public-private partnerships, as Dow Jones Newswires was first to report.

The U.S. administration is still considering a higher gas tax or mileage fees to upgrade the road network, though there would be no move until the economy improves, transportation secretary Ray LaHood said Thursday…..LaHood, speaking at a transport conference in Chicago, said state and federal officials had to look at ‘other creative ways’ beyond the (troubled Highway Trust) fund to maintain and expand roads. President Barack Obama has ruled out any increase in the gas tax that funds the HTF until the economy improves, noted LaHood. Other possibilities include tolled ‘HOT lanes’ running alongside existing roads, as well as more public-private partnerships and even imposing tolls on existing roads. “That’s going to be a wildly debated topic,” LaHood said of any scheme to toll existing roads. He said it would be ‘hard’ to persuade taxpayers to pay again to use something funded from general taxation.

The trick there is to offer them a tangible improvement in the form of guaranteed faster travel times and ramped-up express bus service, in express toll lanes that whenever possible are carved out from the existing highway’s footprint, with free passage for vehicles carrying three or more passengers, plus toll rates determined by real-time congestion levels, and parallel lanes free to all drivers. In any case, after Congress works through health care and climate change, and the transportation “revenue enhancement” window opens wide after the 2010 mid-terms, look for a rollicking debate on transportation. Funding tools, land use and greenhouse gas emissions, and systems-focused performance measures to guide spending decisions are all likely to be part of the commotion. Whatever’s decided in D.C. will set the stage for heavy lifting by states and regions.