SPECIAL REPORT: Pennsylvania lawmakers to vote on funding, tolls

| 7/16/2007

Monday, July 16, 2007 – A multi-billion dollar state spending plan appears to be hours from passage in Pennsylvania. The plan’s passage could lead to truckers and others being charged tolls to use Interstate 80 in the state.

The full House and Senate are expected to vote Monday, July 16, on a $27.2 billion budget after a joint committee made up of select members of both chambers reached agreement Sunday night on the specifics of the plan.

Lead negotiators in the statehouse and Gov. Ed Rendell have been hammering out the final details of the plan the past week as they determined funding levels for various programs. Democrats and Republicans reached a broad agreement July 9 as part of a deal to end a standoff that led to a one-day partial shutdown of state government.

Rendell, a Democrat, was pleased with major increases in funding for various programs. The leaders of the Republican-led Senate touted their achievement in blocking higher taxes and fees, as well as slowing the rate of increase in state spending.

House and Senate lawmakers also are expected to vote as early as Monday on a separate bill that accounts for about a 20 percent increase in transportation funding during the next decade.

The bill – HB1590 – earmarks about $950 million annually for roads, bridges and mass transit. The money would come from sources that include boosting tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike by 25 percent in 2009 and increasing the toll rate by 3 percent each year thereafter. It also would allow I-80 to become a toll road.

Rendell said the plan represents “by far the most significant amount of money devoted to transportation needs in the history of the commonwealth” and should put roads and transit in good shape for the next 15 to 20 years.

Supporters say tolling along the 313-mile, east-west route would be set up to eliminate or minimize fees for local drivers by building collection sites at New Jersey and Ohio borders. However, the bill doesn’t specify how that would work.

Opponents, including the state’s trucking industry, say the plan to toll the roadway likely would be challenged as unconstitutional.

Another plan calls for posting 10 tollbooths along the roadway, the Centre Daily Times reported.

One potential stumbling block for charging vehicles to travel along I-80 is a requirement that the federal government authorize the state to convert the existing road into a “pay-as-you-go” route.

James Runk, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, said if tolls do come to I-80 it could lead to the diversion of traffic to other roads.

Using alternative routes “is liable to cause more traffic congestion and problems in local communities where if these guys do decide to divert could be more problems,” Runk told “Land Line Now” on XM Satellite Radio.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor

Staff writer Reed Black contributed to this report.