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Feds Reject Pa.’s Plan to Turn I-80 Into Toll Road

Tue May 04, 2010 - Northeast Edition
Mark Scolforo and Marc Levy - ASSOCIATED PRESSs

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) The federal government has rejected Pennsylvania’s application to turn Interstate 80 into a toll highway, Gov. Ed Rendell said, eliminating a key source of money to pay for highway, bridge and mass transit projects across the state.

The decision was a victory for many lawmakers and congressmen across northern Pennsylvania who had opposed the idea as an unfair burden on the residents and businesses they represent. It also could set up a thorny, election-year search by lawmakers for money to maintain a state transportation system already considered underfunded.

Rendell said he would call a special session of the Legislature to find a way to replace the $450 million-plus per year that tolls were to produce for transportation projects.

The decision has dire consequences for jobs, commerce and quality of life, and he contacted legislative leaders to urge them to act quickly on a plan to replace the money, he said.

“I have no preconceived notions, I have no one plan, the only thing I know is that we cannot, this commonwealth cannot, afford for us to do nothing,” Rendell told reporters. He said one idea was to revisit his proposal to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private entity, a plan that was previously killed in the Legislature.

The Federal Highway Administration said it rejected the application because money from I-80 tolls could only have been used to operate and maintain the highway itself, but Pennsylvania’s application went beyond that. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the $472 million from the tolls in the 2010-11 budget year would have been part of $2.9 billion in highway and bridge improvements and $1.6 billion in state and federal support for mass transit.

Rendell, who had lobbied heavily in favor of the I-80 tolling application, said he disagreed with the federal government’s reasons for rejecting it.

The I-80 tolls were a key component of a heavily debated 2007 state law designed to generate billions of dollars to fix roads and bridges and subsidize mass transit systems.

That law, which also authorized higher tolls along the existing turnpike system, has already provided more than $2 billion in new transportation money, but revenues will drop sharply in July without the I-80 tolls.

It was expected to provide about $60 billion over the next half-century.

“It is sobering and a very difficult number to even grasp,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Markosek, D-Allegheny.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre, said finding additional money to properly maintain the state’s transportation infrastructure will be a challenge.

“It doesn’t help with the economy, the way the situation is right now, with gas prices going back up,” Corman said. “So none of the options are pleasant.”

Even with the money from I-80 tolls, the state is $750 million short of what a Rendell-appointed commission recommended be spent annually to maintain Pennsylvania’s transportation infrastructure. It also has a backlog of $11 billion in bridge repairs that are awaiting funding, PennDOT said.

The state’s largest mass transit system, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, had been counting on $110 million a year from the tolling plan, or about one-fourth of its capital budget.

Without it, more than 20 projects will be put on hold, including a new fare collection system and the reconstruction of the Broad Street subway station beneath Philadelphia’s City Hall. Rendell also said I-80 will receive $20 million a year in repair money, but would have gotten $50 million a year had tolling been approved.

Interstate 80 spans 311 mi. across Pennsylvania from Ohio to New Jersey and carries some of the state’s heaviest truck volume, about 10,000 trucks a day along most of its length. About 60 percent of its freight traffic ends up in other states, according to the state’s application materials.

Toll stations were to be situated on the road so that local residents could have traveled up to 60 mi. without paying, Rendell said.

However, residents and businesses along I-80 had organized opposition to the tolling proposal, saying it could drive businesses out of the region and divert traffic onto adjacent roads. They also argued it was not fair to add fees to a road that has been free since it opened decades ago.

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