- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tolls are increasingly being diverted to pay for transportation projects and other expenses unrelated to the roadways, bridges and tunnels used by the motorists who pay the fees, the nation’s largest auto club said Wednesday.

The diversion of tolls for unrelated projects undermines the “user pays” principle behind transportation tolls and weakens public support for them, Chris Plaushin, director of federal relations for AAA, told a hearing of the highway subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

A bill introduced by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat and subcommittee chairman, would give the U.S. transportation secretary the power to reject toll increases on highways and bridges that receive federal aid if they are judged excessive.

Mr. Plaushin and a trucking official said they support the bill, but an official representing the states’ departments of transportation expressed concern that it would hinder the ability of states to pay for transportation needs.

“We’re not anti-tolling, but we think some accountability in the process is needed,” Mr. Plaushin said.

Federal and state gas and diesel taxes have paid for the bulk of highway costs since construction of the interstate highway system began in the 1950s. But Congress hasn’t raised the 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax in nearly two decades. Not only has the buying power of the tax eroded, but tax revenue also is down because people are driving less and the fuel efficiency of cars is increasing.

But raising fuel taxes, especially when gas prices are already high, is politically unpalatable. As a result, states are increasingly turning to tolls to pay for upkeep of roads and bridges, as well as a way to build expanded capacity.

The hearing was prompted by significant toll increases approved last year by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It now costs as much as $12 for motorists paying cash rather an using an automated toll system to cross between New York and New Jersey using the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, or the George Washington Bridge and other bridges.

Because of those and other recently approved increases in the Northeast, by 2015, a trip from Baltimore to New York will cost a five-axle truck more than $209 in tolls, said Steve Grabell, chief financial officer of the New Jersey trucking firm NFI, who testified on behalf of the trucking industry.

The hearing was marked by several acrimonious exchanges between Mr. Lautenberg and Bill Baroni, the Port Authority’s deputy executive director.

When Mr. Lautenberg questioned Mr. Baroni on whether he thought $12 was a “fair” toll, Mr. Baroni ignored the question. Instead, he switched the subject, pointing out that at one time Mr. Lautenberg had a free E-Z Pass — an automated toll charging system that enables motorists to use faster toll lanes — paid for by the Port Authority because he had formerly been a Port Authority commissioner.

Mr. Lautenberg, apparently caught by surprise, said he wasn’t going to allow Mr. Baroni to discuss such “silliness” and cut off his remarks. Instead, the senator pressed Mr. Baroni for information about conversations between Port Authority officials and the offices of the governors of New York and New Jersey leading up to the toll increases.

“I’m not going to comment on who said what and when,” Mr. Baroni responded.

“You are going to comment,” Mr. Lautenberg fired back, reminding Mr. Baroni that he had an obligation to testify truthfully. Mr. Baroni said he was “offended” by the inference that he wasn’t telling the truth.

After several more testy exchanges, Lautenberg abruptly gaveled the hearing to a close.

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