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Pa. to Try Again for Feds’ Approval on I-80 Tolling Plan

Fri October 23, 2009 - Northeast Edition

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) A little more than a year ago, federal regulators yanked the rug out from under Pennsylvania’s plan to raise billions of dollars for its transportation needs in the coming decades by installing toll booths along Interstate 80.

The Federal Highway Administration said it was “unable to move the application forward’’ at that time because of doubts that the complicated transaction between the Turnpike Commission and the state Transportation Department was based on an “objective market valuation of the highway.’’

Sometime in the next few weeks, Pennsylvania officials plan to give it another shot, sending federal regulators a financial analysis to justify the size of the transaction. They hope the change of administration in Washington and additional research will revive the plan in time for a key July 1 deadline.

“We’re going to try to prove to FHWA that these payments are in line with other infrastructure lease payments across the United States,’’ turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said.

The I-80 leasing law the state Legislature approved in July 2007 also increased tolls on the existing turnpike, and so far the turnpike has produced $1.8 billion for Pennsylvania’s road, bridge and transit needs.

But if the I-80 tolls are not approved by the end of June, the scheduled payments drop precipitously to a flat rate of $450 million for the next 47 years — instead of $922.5 million next year, an amount that would continue to grow 2.5 percent annually.

Rep. Joe Markosek, the Allegheny County Democrat who chairs the Transportation Committee in the state House of Representatives, said the state’s transportation needs are vast going into a period in which federal money is expected to become scarcer.

A new study by Grove City College professor Tracy Miller, paid for by I-80 toll opponents, warned that tolling would divert traffic onto smaller roads and hamper the corridor’s business climate.

Miller called gasoline taxes a “more efficient and equitable’’ alternative, but Markosek said staunch opposition to higher gasoline levies was part of what led lawmakers to formulate the I-80 tolling plan in the first place.

“Our infrastructure keeps getting a year older every year,’’ Markosek said. “We essentially have no choice, and my response to critics of it up there is ... have their legislators or congressmen sponsor legislation to raise taxes to pay for it. But in lieu of that, we’ve got to toll.’’

The bitter opposition to the tolling proposal in the state’s northern-tier counties remains strong, even though the Turnpike Commission has tried to placate local drivers with a plan to let them pass through their first toll booth for free.

Rep. Michele Brooks, a Republican whose Mercer County district includes a piece of the interstate near the Ohio line, predicts that new charges on the roadway will drive some companies out of business and others out of the state.

“This problem with roads and bridges didn’t accumulate overnight, and yet they’re willing to crush a rural economy in order to try and resolve it overnight,’’ said Brooks. She supports legislation to repeal the tolling law, but many lawmakers represent areas along the Pennsylvania Turnpike where motorists are paying higher tolls.

Gov. Ed Rendell, who unsuccessfully pushed a plan to lease the turnpike to a private group to raise transportation infrastructure money, supports the renewed effort to get federal approval, his spokesman said.

If the I-80 toll money does not start coming in, the administration will have to scale back its plans for road and bridge projects, Transportation Department spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick said.

Nancy Singer, a spokeswoman for the Federal Highway Administration, declined to say how quickly the agency might rule once the state provides the additional material. Singer said the new secretary of transportation, Ray LaHood, “has said tolling is a good option to consider for new roads but prefers not to toll existing roads.’’

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