As Congress debates what the next highway funding law should look like, there is a temptation to allow more tolling across the country.
For Darren Hawkins, CEO of YRC Worldwide Inc., a company that already pays $25 million annually in tolls, that increased revenue has a downside.
“We believe that tolls are not the right solution and in fact can be very harmful to our industry, our customers and ultimately, to consumers,” Hawkins told the House Subcommittee on Highways & Transit.
Hawkins was testifying on behalf of American Trucking Associations. YRC ranks No. 7 on the 2019 Fleet Owner 500 listing of the largest for-hire carriers in the United States and Canada.
The current transportation funding law, the FAST Act, expires on Sept. 30, 2020. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has passed a five-year, $287 billion bill that proposes examining a vehicle-miles-traveled fee. The Senate Finance Committee, which has responsibility for developing methods for paying for the authorized levels, has not started its work on the legislation.
The Sept. 11 hearing focused on strategies to tackle congestion on and financing of the nation’s highways. Witnesses included a mayor, a state Department of Transportation official and several transportation researchers and experts.
The members of the subcommittee were all in agreement that something needs to happen, yet there was little sense they were closer to a consensus than the many similar hearings that have come before this one.
Some backed the message from Marc Scribner, senior fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who urged to Congress to permit greater flexibility at the state and local level to price road use in order to address peak-hour traffic congestion.
Critics of this philosophy said there must be sufficient alternatives for people who may have limited means.
YRC’s Hawkins promoted a federal fuel tax hike, and cautioned against tolling on existing infrastructure and other user fees that have high administrative costs.
The only fireworks during the hearing came as Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) questioned Oliver Gilbert, mayor of the city of Miami Gardens, why residents of his rural district in North Carolina should pay more in federal taxes to improve the commute of those who live in a congested portion of Florida.
From his rural perspective, he said it is important to consider the “appropriate contribution” from the federal level for what “many view as a local issue.” Meadows sought recommendations on how he is supposed to sell the idea of a tax hike to his constituents.
Gilbert replied that Meadows should “ask them to understand as goes one part of the country goes every part of the country.” He added congestion caused by growing economic activity at the Port of Miami “is not just good for Miami Dade, it is good for America.”
While responding to a different question a short time later, YRC’s Hawkins seemed to further address Meadows’ concerns. He said it is important to “preserve the great heritage of adequate infrastructure that has suffered for too long from underinvestment."
The result are more states taking aggressive actions, sometime with troubling results such as the creation of “hostage centers” – smaller states with a limited number of interstate highway miles but excessive tolls, especially on commercial vehicles.
“Those type of situations endanger companies and free enterprise,” said Hawkins.
He pointed to the recent closure of New England Motor Freight, which said high tolls in the northeast played a role in its demise. “This is the ultimate example of what can happen if we don’t take this seriously,” Hawkins said.