What would those tolls on I-80 pay for? Pennsylvania officials explain

| 7/18/2008

If the federal government approves the application for tolling I-80, Pennsylvania officials will have $83.3 billion during the next 50 years for state transportation programs that include rebuilding the interstate from the ground up.

Officials unveiled their capital assessment plan the week of July 14 via an online presentation to the press.

“The whole intent of this tolling program is for those who use the road the most to pay for its reconstruction,” said Project Manager Barry Schoch of the McCormick Taylor firm.

He said under Act 44, passed one year ago and signed into law by Gov. Ed Rendell, tolls on Interstate 80 would be the same rate as the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s proposed 2010 rate. Tolls on the turnpike are to increase by 25 percent in 2009 and increase 3 percent or at the rate of inflation each year thereafter over the life of the tolling plan.

Nothing is set in stone yet. The Federal Highway Administration has not signed off on adding the I-80 toll proposal to a pilot program that allows tolling on three existing interstates for the purpose of reconstruction or rehabilitation.

Schoch said the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s application to FHWA – which was kicked back earlier this year by federal officials requesting more information – would be resubmitted sometime in the next few days or weeks.

A spokesman for a Pennsylvania member of the U.S. House of Representatives said the Turnpike Commission planned to resubmit its application to FHWA by the end of the week, Friday, July 18. That had not been confirmed by turnpike officials as of this posting.

Schoch outlined what it would take to rehabilitate or rebuild the 50-year-old interstate.

“Our conclusions are that in today’s dollars, it’s going to cost $250 million per year to rehabilitate this corridor,” Schoch said.

He said one of the things the original application lacked was a complete capital assessment of improvement costs.

“This application will contain this very detailed capital assessment,” Schoch said.

Under Act 44, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission assumed operational control of I-80 from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. With I-80 tolls, rent payments to PennDOT will total more than $750 million per year. Without tolls, the commission is on the hook to pay PennDOT about $450 million per year.

The proposed $1.1 billion per year that I-80 tolls would generate, when indexed to estimated rates of inflation, produces the $83.3 billion figure over 50 years, Schoch said.

If tolls are implemented, the Turnpike Commission would implement open-road tolling without cash tollbooths. E-ZPass or other systems would automatically bill the user while users without a cashless toll account would have their license plates photographed and a toll bill sent to the owner of the vehicle.

Schoch said that under Act 44, only about one-third of local short-distance drivers would be subject to paying tolls because not all interchanges would have toll booths. Act 44 calls for just 10 tolling points along the 311 miles of I-80 in the Keystone State.

I-80 was constructed between 1958 and 1970 and has 59 interchanges and 411 bridges.

The capital assessment presented to the media by Schoch contains a funding formula for replacing deficient bridges.

Gov. Rendell, even though he signed Act 44 into law in July 2007, prefers another method for the state to generate transportation funding. He prefers leasing the existing east-west Pennsylvania Turnpike’s mainline to private investors.

An investment group from Spain and New York bid $12.8 billion in May to control the turnpike for 75 years. That proposal requires authorization from the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Opponents to excessive tolling proposals – including truckers who pay their fair share in fuel taxes and other user fees to run in Pennsylvania – say neither I-80 tolls nor a lease of the turnpike will solve Pennsylvania’s transportation funding crisis. They advocate a more responsible system of budgeting for transportation without excessive earmarking.

Pennsylvania has the highest state tax on diesel fuel in the nation at 38.1 cents per gallon. Gasoline taxes are in the top five highest in the nation as well.

– By David Tanner, staff writer