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Federal Tolling Program Looks for Greater Coordination, New Conversations with State Partners

By: 
Bill Cramer

Cynthia Essenmacher arrived four months ago as Tolling Program Manager at the U.S. Federal Highway Administration’s Center for Innovative Finance Support, after more than a decade working at FHWA and, before that, the Maryland Transportation Authority. In this interview with Tolling Points, she talks about the role she expects to play in coordinating the federal presence in tolling to deliver the greatest benefit to state partners and highway users.

What key priorities do you hope to address as Tolling Program Manager?

CE: The Center for Innovative Finance Support manages public-private partnerships as well as innovative financing, and then we also have the tolling programs, but that’s a small subset of the bigger federal presence in tolling. We deal with the revenue side of tolling, while our Office of Operations focuses on congestion mitigation. One of my priorities is to help make sure that we’re all coordinating to support the full range of needs and goals of state transportation agencies.

What are the top challenges facing surface transportation infrastructure over the next six months to two years?

CE: Having sufficient revenues for maintenance and preservation is one of the biggest challenges states face in transportation infrastructure, which is not a new concept. Tolling is part of the multiple finance options a state can use to either build new capacity or maintain and preserve its assets. At the same time, understanding the different reasons for using tolling, whether to mitigate congestion or finance new capacity is important. Federal tolling authority can be used for both congestion management and collecting revenue.

How often are you having these conversations with state governments?

CE: The level of activity and the level of questions we’ve received on tolling have surprised me. FHWA can help states understand the purposes of federal tolling authority along with the restrictions Congress has imposed on tolling existing infrastructure or new capacity. States need to know about options such as the Value Pricing Pilot Program, in which variable tolling can help mitigate congestion. Building new capacity is not always necessary in order to toll. 

It’s fascinating but extremely difficult, because there are so many little nuances. It’s not a question of whether to toll or not – it’s really about engaging with the states to clearly identify the goals and objectives of the project – and what it is anticipated the project will accomplish.  Then it’s possible to look more closely at the programs that allow tolling in order to meet that project’s objectives

That means every project we look at is unique.  Granting federal tolling authority is not a one-size-fits-all approach.  It should be noted that FHWA does offer resources to educate and support projects with tolling, innovative finance and public-private partnerships.  Resources may include technical assistance, peer exchanges and workshops that may interest states implementing tolling, especially for the first time.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about slots opening up in the Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program (ISRRPP). How do you see the pilot program driving the agenda forward on sustainable infrastructure funding?

CE: From a project being selected and implemented under this program, I’m hoping we can mainstream the concept of rehabilitating or reconstructing an existing interstate highway with the use of tolls. Right now, unless a state is under the Value Pricing Pilot Program, tolling existing infrastructure is limited under federal statute. Since the inception of the ISRRPP in 1998, we haven’t had a project go to implementation. But several states have contacted us about the open slots.

Do you see any administrative or other barriers to the pilot program fulfilling that potential?

CE: If a state has no tolling at all and they’re interested in doing an ISRRPP project, the biggest barrier is usually public support. It’s an education piece. FHWA support states by helping them understand the different financing options that are out there for them to explore.

Explore the latest options in tolling by signing up today for the IBTTA/TRB Joint Symposium on AET and Managed Lanes, July 16-18, 2017 in Dallas Texas.