SPECIAL REPORT: PA transportation bill OK’d; I-80 toll bill pending

| 7/18/2007

Wednesday, July 18, 2007 – Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell signed a multi-billion dollar state spending plan Tuesday, July 17, that includes money for transportation. A separate effort awaits his signature that could lead to truckers and others paying tolls on Interstate 80 in the state.

The $27.2 billion budget increases funding for various state programs without new broad-based tax or fee increases.

Rendell is scheduled to sign a separate bill into law today that accounts for about a 20 percent increase in transportation funding during the next decade. On Tuesday, the House voted 124-79 to approve the bill after Senate lawmakers passed it earlier in the day on a 30-19 vote.

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.

It also would require municipalities to match 15 percent of state funding for mass transit systems. They could raise the money with taxes on income, sales, hotel rooms or vehicle rentals. On average, localities now are required to chip in 13 percent.

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.

One potential stumbling block for charging vehicles to travel along the 313-mile east-west route is a requirement that the federal government authorize the state to convert the existing road into a “pay-as-you-go” route.

Supporters of the tolling plan are confident that federal approval is only a matter of time. They cite talks with the Federal Highway Administration about authorizing tolls on the roadway as part of a pilot program to relieve congestion.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville, told lawmakers during debate about I-80 tolls on the House floor Tuesday that it’s safe to presume “it will become reality very soon.”

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission would be authorized to erect 10 toll barriers along the route. Advocates say tolling would be set up to eliminate or minimize fees for local drivers. 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. They also say it could lead to the diversion of traffic to other roads as well as the relocation of trucking-dependent businesses along Interstate 81.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor