BULLETIN: Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to control I-80

| 10/16/2007

Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2007 – As part of a lease signed this week, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission will assume control over Interstate 80 in the state. The 50-year lease from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is part of a broader plan to convert I-80 into a toll road.

PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick told Land Line that the two agencies agreed to terms on Saturday, Oct. 13 and proceeded to file a joint application to the Federal Highway Administration for authority to toll the 311-mile interstate.

That application for tolling authority is not a done deal yet, say opponents, including the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a number of state and federal lawmakers and business owners.

Travis Windle, media spokesman for U.S. Rep. John Peterson, R-PA, said the I-80 proposal can only move forward if approved by the FHWA.

“We don’t take a whole lot of credence in some papers being signed,” Windle told Land Line. “The fact that a couple of lawyers got in a room and signed some papers doesn’t mean that the bar has been lowered at the federal level, which is the lynchpin to this program – Act 44 – being implemented.”

Act 44 – part of HB1590 approved by the Pennsylvania General Assembly and signed into law in July by Gov. Ed Rendell – is the funding mechanism for the state transportation budget. It includes projected toll revenue from I-80 as well as a turnpike toll increase of 25 percent in 2009 and additional increases each year to follow.

Turnpike CEO Joseph Brimmeier told Land Line in a previous interview that tolls on I-80, if approved, would mirror those on the turnpike.

State officials had until Monday, Oct. 15 to reach the lease agreement, according to a provision in Act 44.

“We feel we met that,” Kirkpatrick said.

Signing the agreement were Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Allen Biehler and Pennsylvania Turnpike Chairman Mitchell Rubin.

In addition to highways, Act 44 includes a provision to use turnpike tolls and other funding sources to subsidize 73 mass transit projects around the state.

Brimmeier had previously submitted an application asking for authority to toll under one of FHWA’s tolling programs for interstates. The latest application promises more maintenance for I-80 and some other bells and whistles.

PennDOT and turnpike spokesmen stated in a joint press release that tolling I-80, along with a turnpike toll increase and other funding sources authorized in the state transportation budget, will generate a total of $116 billion over 50 years.

A state study recently revealed that the state lags behind by $945 million per year in transportation funding.

But state officials’ temptation to find quick cash doesn’t sit well with opponents who believe interstates are already paid for through taxation and should not be tolled.

Rep. Peterson and others, including fellow U.S. Rep. Phil English, R-PA, have spoken out against Act 44 and the promotion tactics by Gov. Rendell and the turnpike chief.

English recently wrote to U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to ask that the I-80 toll plan be stopped in its tracks.

Proposed legislation by Peterson in the House and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-TX, in the Senate calls for Peters to discontinue three FHWA programs related to tolling existing interstates.

Another bill, the Toll Road Prohibition Act of 2007, filed in the House by Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-IA, would make states pay back the federal Highway Trust Fund if they want to toll a highway built with federal funds.

– By David Tanner, staff writer