IBTTA: road user charge is the future

The US government’s cash injection for the nation’s bridges represents a step forward – but IBTTA’s Pat Jones suggests that states need to consider the benefits of road usage charging
March 16, 2022
The George Washington Bridge spans the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey and ‘most likely never would have been built in the absence of toll funding and toll finance’ © Sean Pavone | Dreamstime.com
The George Washington Bridge spans the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey and ‘most likely never would have been built in the absence of toll funding and toll finance’ © Sean Pavone | Dreamstime.com

The Nationwide Bridge Formula Program announced by USDoT aims to repair, improve, and construct bridges both on and off the federal-aid highway system. It’s roughly $27 billion over five years, with $5.3bn distributed to the states by formula in FY 2022 under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

Under normal circumstances when the federal government provides bridge repair money to the states it’s an 80-20 match. The state must come up with 20% of the money, and the feds bring 80%. But with this law, states can receive 100% federal funding to fix bridges that are off the interstate highway system. That’s a big advantage for the many states that have had pressure on their coffers and have stretched every single dollar.

This new programme that distributes these funds underscores a fundamental, philosophical underpinning of how the US finances all infrastructure, not just bridges. This is a moment when we need to recognise how important it is to have sustainable sources of funding. We are delighted that Congress, in a bipartisan way, passed the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act, and that the president signed it. Moreover, we’re enthusiastic that there is a tremendous amount of money flowing to key infrastructure projects.

But the fact that we needed such a large infusion from this law points to the fragility of our funding and financing system. Nevertheless, this challenge of funding is one that the tolling industry has confronted and overcome. Every one of our toll-finances bridges, as well as highways and tunnels, have an ongoing sustainable revenue stream that supports them - they are not supported by federal monies.

Vision and foresight

On IBTTA’s social media channels we’ve been posting majestic photos of some of our members’ bridges: like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the George Washington Bridge in New York, and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in Virginia. These are structures that, most likely, never would have been built in the absence of toll funding and toll finance.

The fact that some of these bridges, like the Golden Gate Bridge, were built at the height of the Great Depression is a testament to vision and foresight of states and municipalities to say: “Building this bridge is so important to us and the economic development of the region that we’re going to issue debt and charge users a toll to pay off the bridge over time.”

Today, IBTTA members – who are builders and operators of critical infrastructure – keep that same mindset by advancing mobility to keep their economies going. Take the George Washington Bridge the links New Jersey and New York: 7.2 million commercial vehicles cross that bridge every year, so it is a vital commercial link. Yet, if it weren’t for toll funding and finance, it wouldn’t be there.

None of these challenges is theoretical or abstract. These are concrete, down-to-earth problems that we’re all trying to solve: How do we move freight? How do people get to work? How do they get to school and to church and engage in all aspects of life without a sustainable funding source for vital road and bridge infrastructure?

Sustainable funding

The US is waking up to the need for sustainable sources of funding. This legislation may not be a one-off, but integral to its success is the user-pays principle exemplified by tolling and road usage charging where drivers pay by the distance they travel.

Road usage charging is the future of funding our surface transportation infrastructure. For the last 30 years, people have said: “Road usage charging is 10 years away.” But you pick a date, and it’s always “10 years away.” What this law attempts to do is to say: “Alright, it’s 10 years out - but next year, it’s going to be nine years out, and we are going to be intentional about advancing road usage charging as a replacement for the gas tax or the diesel tax.”

The Golden Gate Bridge was built during the Great Depression: ‘A testament to vision and foresight of states and municipalities’ © Helena Bilkova | Dreamstime.com
The Golden Gate Bridge was built during the Great Depression: ‘A testament to vision and foresight of states and municipalities’ © Helena Bilkova | Dreamstime.com

Of course, the reason for all this is that we’re moving to electric vehicles. Sometime in the next 30 years, we’ll have a completely electrified transportation system, and you’re not going to get any money from the fuel tax.

So now is the time to begin the transition. State governments have already calculated the deficits that they’re going to experience because of the decline of the gas tax. California sees it is a visible problem for them, and that’s why they’re moving so aggressively toward testing and implementing road usage charging. And IBTTA wants to be a part of that.

Tolling is a facility charge. And road usage charging, which takes the place of the gas tax, is a system charge. Soon there will be a convergence of tolling and road usage charging, and we want to be at the point where that convergence happens.

IBTTA in 2022

Beyond this new funding programme to fix our nation’s bridges, 2022 is shaping up well for IBTTA. We have a full complement of educational meetings. First up is our Technology Summit March 20-22 in Orlando.

The Summit is a critical event that reflects how technology is impacting tolling while shaping the future of innovation in the industry. It is a great opportunity for all tolling professionals to come to do business while taking in an educational programme built around what’s new and what’s next. Before it officially kicks off, there are also two days of hands-on workshops, executive roundtables, pre-conference meetings and service project opportunities.

Also, attendees can head to SunTrax for a great technical tour hosted by Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise. This is the first big opportunity of 2022 for toll operators, consultants, and vendors to come together to share knowledge and explore new solutions.

We also have a Road Usage Charging and Finance conference in Denver in May and a maintenance workshop in Cleveland in June. One of the highlights of the year will be the celebration of our 90th anniversary at our annual meeting in Austin in September.

There are a few additional items on IBTTA’s radar. Last December, the board directors adopted a new strategic plan which has two major strategic objectives. The first of these is to be the leader in advancing road user payment principles. And our other strategic objective is to really exemplify and embrace diversity, equity and inclusion—in all our association work and with our members as well. That’s a big focus. And in our board meetings this year, we’ll be developing OKRs (objectives and key results) so that we can monitor our progress.

Pat Jones

We’re really excited about the opportunity to raise the level of debate about infrastructure funding and finance - and we’ve got the members to help us do that.

About the Author:
Pat Jones is executive director & CEO of IBTTA

National Bridge Formula Program

Administered by the Federal Highway Administration, the National Bridge Formula Program provides $26.5 billion to states and is “the single largest dedicated bridge investment since the construction of the interstate highway system”, according to the US government. The first $5.3 billion of that will be available in this fiscal year. It is expected overall to help fund repairs to around 15,000 bridges.

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