Bill would give DOT final say on tolls

Bill would give DOT final say on tolls

Heavy toll hikes imposed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) earlier this year is the impetus behind a Congressional legislative effort now underway to redirect the bulk of tolling power in the U.S. to the Dept. of Transportation (DOT).

Heavy toll hikes imposed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) earlier this year is the impetus behind a Congressional legislative effort now underway to redirect the bulk of tolling power in the U.S. to the Dept. of Transportation (DOT).

Congressional leaders said the legislation is needed to ensure toll revenue is spent on highway infrastructure needs.

“There’s a clear need for federal oversight here to make sure toll revenue is being used appropriately and not going to fund excessive salaries or political patronage jobs,” noted Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, in a statement upon introduction of the Commuter Protection Act late last week.

“When it costs $12 to drive your car across a bridge in America, something is wrong [and] while the Port Authority and the two states [New York and New Jersey] are struggling to explain why these dramatic hikes were imposed, commuters are suffering,” he explained. “Given these out of control toll hikes and the cloud of misinformation surrounding them, federal protections for commuters need to be restored.”

“This bipartisan legislation brings oversight of toll rates on our nation’s federally funded highway system back into the DOT where it belongs,” added Rep. Michael Grimm (R- NY), who co-sponsored this legislation.

“The Port Authority has reaped the benefit from nearly unchecked control in deciding how much is ‘just and reasonable’ for commuters travelling on the federal highway system to pay,” he said. “With almost no return on transportation infrastructure or mass transit for commuters it is as clear as daylight that there is little to no oversight on how or where the money is spent.”

The genesis for this bill, Lautenberg and Grimm noted, are long-term toll hikes PANYNJ put in place this past August for commuters and truckers alike to use bridges and tunnels linking New York and New Jersey.

As a result of the Port Authority’s plan, tolls for cars traveling between New Jersey and New York will increase from $8 to $15 by 2015, while cars using the E-Z Pass electronic toll collection system will pay slightly less at $12.50 over the same period of time.

Five-axle trucks that currently pay $40 dollars, however, will have to pay up to $105 by 2015 under PANYNJ’s tolling program. Cash-paying 5-axle trucks now pay $85 for roundtrip tolls during peak hours compared to the previous $40, while those truckers using E-ZPass now pay $70 for peak bridge-crossing use, up from $40.

Off-peak travel tolls for truckers increased from $35 to $65, with only overnight travel tolls remaining unchanged at $27.50 – as long as truckers use the E-ZPass system. In addition, the overnight discount for truckers was expanded from midnight to 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The Commuter Protection Act, however, would restore DOT’s ability to determine whether such bridge and tunnel tolls imposed by authorities are “just and reasonable,” Grimm and Lautenberg noted.

Up until 1987, DOT had the authority to determine whether any tolls charged to drivers were “just and reasonable” upon a complaint. Under the Commuter Protection Act, then, if the toll increases were deemed unfair, the Transportation Secretary could override such hikes and put more “reasonable” maximum tolls in place.

The bill would also require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to report on and make recommendations for increasing the transparency and accountability of tolling authority budget practices, Congressional leaders noted.

Efforts to boost highway tolls in recent years remains a growing source of angst for a wide variety of groups, though others believe such hikes are vital in order to make necessary upgrades to U.S. transportation infrastructure.

In the anti-toll camp, however, disparate trade groups such as the American Trucking Assns. (ATA), AAA New York, the AAA Clubs of New Jersey, the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Assn. (OOIDA), and the American Highway Users Alliance are all backing the Grimm-Lautenberg legislation.

“There are a number of reasons why tolling is bad public policy, but that policy gets worse when the tolls are raised without consideration for the users of highways and bridges and the revenue generated is not dedicated for their benefit, but rather stolen for other projects,” noted Bill Graves, ATA’s president & CEO, in a statement.

“It is our hope that when this bill becomes law, the DOT will put a stop to increases like the one being pushed through in New York City,” he said.

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