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New Transportation Secretary Endorses Toll Roads
US Transportation Secretary designate Ray LaHood endorses toll road policies of his predecessor.

Ray LaHood
Motorists expecting change from President Barack Obama's choice of transportation secretary may instead find only a slight adjustment of priorities. Former Illinois Congressman Ray LaHood (R-Peoria) appeared before Senate transportation committee colleagues yesterday to give the first glimpse at what he wants to do to with federal transportation funds after taking his place in the cabinet.

"Tolling new lanes of highways is thinking outside the box," LaHood said. "We need to think about those kinds of opportunities. If we're going to think innovatively, those are some of the ways we're going to have to think about these things instead of the gas tax."

LaHood referred to the federal fuel excise tax first implemented in 1932 as a "dinosaur" and repeated the claims made by former Transportation Secretary Mary Peters that traditional funding sources were not bringing in enough money (more). LaHood suggested tolling was the "innovative" alternative that the country needs to "plus up" transportation revenue. Toll roads have been in use since the Middle Ages both as a means of generating fee income and of controlling public movement.

A handful of senators expressed reservations regarding the imposition of tolls on highways. Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), for example, said the current emphasis on these methods was "too strong" and that the addition of toll booths on existing interstate highway lanes was not in the public interest.

"Personally, I don't think it's a good idea," LaHood agreed.

A pair of Senate newcomers weighed in with their thoughts on the subject. While former Virginia Governor Mark Warner (D) praised his state's leadership on public-private partnership initiatives such as the Beltway High Occupancy Toll lanes, he said that he worried about deals where private companies were risking public money to make a corporate profit. Warner's warning would appear to apply to the Beltway toll lanes he endorsed in which an Australian company will invest less than the cost of the interest on the $1.9 billion project, yet the company will pocket tolls from drivers over the next eighty years. Alaska Senator Mark Begich (D) said more directly that he was just not a fan of tolling.

On other topics, LaHood appeared more interested in adjusting priorities at the department than overturning past policy decisions. Increased use of motorist funds to subsidize transit, for example, follows from LaHood's record of supporting increased funding for Amtrak. LaHood emphasized his consistent record in favor of raising CAFE standards and insisted that transportation projects would move forward quickly as part of an economic stimulus package.

"We have a mandate from President Obama to get things done," LaHood said.

LaHood received the unanimous endorsement of the committee. He will take office upon the approval of the full Senate where the vote could come as early as today.

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