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Federal Agency Pushes States to Toll Existing Roads
Administration spends $10.5 million in taxpayer funds encouraging conversion of free roads into toll routes.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHoodThe Federal Highway Administration yesterday held out $10.5 million to bribe states into turning freeways into toll roads through fiscal 2011. As part of the so-called Value Pricing Program, which Congress introduced in 1991, the agency will take taxes paid by drivers at the pump and underwrite projects designed to charge motorists more for driving on existing roads or increase other fees imposed on drivers.

"These projects show that states are developing new ways of thinking about how to manage congestion," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement on projects selected in August.

Under the program, FHWA will select fifteen project proposals submitted by state departments of transportation and underwrite up to 80 percent of the cost of feasibility studies and implementation reporting. In August's funding round, for example, the Virginia Department of Transportation and Washington Council of Governments received $320,000 in taxpayer funds for a study of the "advancement of regional pricing in DC including pricing existing facilities." The Texas Department of Transportation received $2 million to promote a pay-per-mile insurance pilot programs designed to ease the public into acceptance of the concept of pay-per-mile road pricing. Of the total amount of money allocated, $2.6 million is set aside for "non-tolling" projects such as the use of congestion pricing at parking meters, a system that allows local authorities to charge higher rates for car owners during peak times.

Tolling of roads, especially of "existing facilities," is frequently criticized as creating so-called Lexus Lanes that force poor commuters to drive in traffic while the wealthy can pay for a quicker journey. To address this problem, the FHWA program will support the diversion of even more money from state and federal gas taxes toward complicated rebate systems or mass transit.

"The potential financial effects of value pricing projects on low-income drivers shall be considered," FHWA's Federal Register notice explained. "Where such effects are expected to be both negative and significant, possible mitigation measures should be identified, such as providing new or expanded transit service as an integral part of the value pricing project, toll discounts or credits for low-income motorists who do not have viable transit options, or fare or toll credits earned by motorists by use of regular lanes which can be used to pay for tolls on priced lanes. Additional measures include methods to facilitate convenient cash payment by those who do not have bank accounts or credit cards, or who choose not to tie their toll accounts to their bank accounts or credit cards."

Applications for the federal funding must be received by January 18, 2011.