Pennsylvania refiles I-80 tolling application

| 10/30/2009

Transportation officials in Pennsylvania refiled their application seeking permission from the Federal Highway Administration to convert Interstate 80 into a toll road.

If the feds approve the application, truckers would pay tolls comparable to the Pennsylvania Turnpike on an interstate that was built with federal tax money.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association says highway users should take a stand against double taxation.

“This is a disgraceful effort to steal money out of truckers’ pockets,” OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs Mike Joyce told Land Line. “We are going to fight this tooth and nail.”

OOIDA called together a meeting of the Americans for a Strong National Highway Network on Friday, Oct. 30, the morning after the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission submitted the joint application.

“The grassroots membership of our respective organizations are outraged with this resubmittal,” Joyce said.

PennDOT Secretary Allen Biehler, who also serves as Turnpike Commission chairman, issued the state response, explaining how the 2007 state law known as Act 44 directed the Commission to pursue tolls on I-80.

“Act 44 directed PennDOT and the Turnpike Commission to enter into a lease giving the Turnpike oversight of Interstate 80 as a toll road,” Biehler stated in a press release.

“We have the (50-year) lease in place, and, with the additional information being provided to the Federal Highway Administration, we hope for a speedy decision.”

The FHWA oversees six tolling pilot programs created in 2005. Pennsylvania first applied under the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program in 2007, saying tolls would be used to rebuild I-80.

The FHWA returned the application in September 2008, citing a lack of sufficient evidence that the Act 44 payments would be consistent with market levels.

The re-filed application, according to the Turnpike Commission, addresses those issues.

Turnpike Commission Spokesman Carl DeFebo said Pennsylvania is forced to look at tolls as a funding mechanism when lawmakers remain reluctant to increase fuel taxes.

“Fuel taxes have not increased in Pennsylvania for 12 years and even longer than that on the federal level, and revenues from those sources have not kept pace with dramatically increasing costs to maintain our highways,” DeFebo told Land Line.

“While taxes indeed were sufficient to construct and maintain our roads and other transportation systems, they are simply insufficient to modernize and rebuild our crumbling highways and bridges. With a persistent lack of political desire to increase taxes – the customary means to fund highways – states need new tools like tolling to continue providing a safe, modern transportation infrastructure that in the end benefits everyone.”

“Their math is pretty suspect. It reminds me of the saying ‘figures lie and liars figure,” Joyce said.

OOIDA says Pennsylvania is notorious for diverting highway dollars for other purposes.

“Why should the federal government bail them out by approving this tolling scheme? They’re asking the government to bail them out for flawed legislation that was passed and signed into law by a governor who continues to divert resources away from highways to mismanaged agencies,” Joyce said.

“They’re playing a shell game with this, and the state of Pennsylvania has put the cart before the horse by passing state law Act 44.”

Truckers are not alone in their opposition.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-PA, said Act 44 has been a “dice roll since the beginning” and leaves taxpayers on the hook for billions.

“After an initial review of the financial analysis, it expressly states that I-80 traffic patterns have uncertainty to them once tolls are placed on the Interstate,” Thompson said in a statement.

“Any diversion, which is not addressed in this application, will have an effect on revenues and will jeopardize future highway and bridge funding.”

State Rep. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe County, in a statement published by the Alliance to Stop I-80 Tolling, also cites traffic diversion as a reason to oppose tolling.

“Tolling Interstate 80 is a regional solution to a statewide problem. It will severely disrupt the local economies and burden local roads with increased truck traffic as businesses seek to avoid paying tolls,” Scavello stated.

– By David Tanner, staff writer