A square peg
Former FHWA official explains why Pennsylvania's effort to toll I-80 was flawed from the get-go

By David Tanner
staff writer


Marcus Lemon is not against tolling to pay for transportation. But the former chief counsel for the Federal Highway Administration says Pennsylvania’s effort to toll Interstate 80 remains flawed.

Lemon, appointed by President Bush in 2007, said the FHWA had good reason to reject the application from being part of the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program.

The pilot program would have authorized the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to toll I-80 to pay for reconstruction of the interstate and to free up existing funds for other things.

“The problem you run into with a program like this is that sometimes you have applicants that attempt to fit themselves into the program that don’t necessarily meet all of the criteria,” Lemon told Land Line Magazine.

Lemon, now an attorney specializing in public-private partnerships with the Washington, DC, firm Baker & Miller, said state officials do not have a strong case for tolling in the wake of a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation study in 2005 that found I-80 in good condition.

“Interstate 80 has gone through a number of upgrades and repairs in recent years, and there really is an engineering question – under the program that they applied through – as to whether or not it really needs to be reconstructed,” Lemon said.

Pennsylvania is one of many states trying to increase transportation revenue.

State lawmakers passed Act 44 in 2007 to shift turnpike funds to things like mass transit while making I-80 self-sustaining.

Lemon is skeptical of the approach.

“In this case it seems like they’re trying to back into it,” he said. “In other words, they’ve developed a feeling about their budget needs financially. And they’re saying this is how much money we need to come up with for the transportation budget, so let’s go toll this road to make the money. That isn’t the way to approach it.”

Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission Spokesman Bill Capone defends the approach, saying I-80 tolls would not be diverted for other uses under the law.

“The money that’s coming from an I-80 toll road is going to be put back into the road,” Capone told Land Line. “We’re going to spend $250 million a year, and that’s four times the current amount, to upgrade the roadway and its bridges.”

The better approach, Lemon believes, would be for Pennsylvania to study a roadway that needs to be reconstructed – he cited I-95 as an example – and formulate an application based on that need.

OOIDA opposes the tolling of existing federal highways. The Association rejoiced in September 2008 when the FHWA turned back – or rejected – the application.

The Turnpike Commission takes exception to the word “rejected” to describe the FHWA’s action. Lemon defends use of the term.

“It’s viable because the reality was that the application as it was provided was rejected, and it was rejected because it was not accepted,” he said. “It was not approved.”

Lemon questions the experience level of Provident Capital Advisors, the firm hired by the Turnpike Commission to provide financial analysis for the current pending version of the application.

A document furnished to Land Line by Turnpike officials shows that Provident has some experience with highways, but not an abundance.

Lemon admits his bias in the Pennsylvania scenario. He is in favor of an alternative plan launched in 2008 by Gov. Ed Rendell to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to private investors. He also speaks in favor of a controversial 2006 lease of the Indiana Toll Road to Cintra-Macquarie.

Bill filed to abolish Turnpike
As Land Line went to press, Pennsylvania House lawmakers were considering a bill filed by state Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery County, that would abolish the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and shift turnpike operations to the state DOT.

In response, Turnpike officials point out that Vereb supported Act 44 in favor of I-80 tolls. LL