SPECIAL REPORT: OOIDA questions ethics of Pennsylvania I-80 lease

| 10/17/2007

Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2007 – The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association is questioning the ethics of a lease involving Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania.

“It’s backroom politics at best, and at worst perhaps even criminal,” OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer said after learning that I-80 was being turned over by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for the purpose of adding tolls.

“We are anxious to see exactly what they’ve got the citizens of Pennsylvania on the hook for.”

As recently as 2005, PennDOT officials came to the conclusion that tolling should not be pursued on Interstate 80.

“As this analysis looked at the various benefits and challenges to implementing tolls on I-80, there are significant issues with imposing tolls on this currently free highway,” PennDOT officials stated in a 2005 report.

“Based on a long timetable to realize benefits, the high cost of converting the road to toll, and the fact that a financial break-even point is decades away, it is recommended that converting I-80 to a toll road not be pursued at this time.”

Yet, on Saturday, Oct. 13, PennDOT officials signed over control of the 311-mile I-80 to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for the purpose of tolling.

The date of the lease signing has been in question since transportation officials announced on Tuesday, Oct. 16, that the deal had been reached.

PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick stopped short of saying when the lease was actually signed. He toldLand Line that the lease was “agreed to in principle” Saturday and went into effect Sunday, but non-profit public-policy group the Commonwealth Foundation claims the agreement wasn’t finalized until Monday, Oct. 15.

The funding element of the Pennsylvania transportation budget – known as Act 44 – approved by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Ed Rendell demands the lease be finalized “prior to October 15, 2007.”

Kirkpatrick told Land Line that officials met the deadline.

Meanwhile, state officials are pushing ahead.

Kirkpatrick said the two agencies filed a joint application Saturday to receive tolling authority from the Federal Highway Administration. Neither the turnpike commission nor the state DOT currently possesses the federal authority needed to toll I-80.

The FHWA currently has six programs designed for interstate tolling. The joint application from Pennsylvania targets the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Program, which FHWA intends for “highway corridors that could not otherwise be adequately maintained or functionally improved without the collection of tolls.”

PennDOT, in the same report that recommended against tolling in 2005, stated that conditions on I-80 “compare favorably to average conditions on the nation’s Interstate System” and that the “preservation of I-80 is expected to be manageable.”

Spencer and others opposed to tolling say Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and other officials have been forcing the toll proposal on the unsuspecting taxpayers in a hasty manner.

“Tolling would be an unconscionable burden for small business truckers,” Spencer said. “And, it would also start the death knell for thousands of Pennsylvania businesses that rely on I-80 for commerce and their very livelihood.”

– By David Tanner, staff writer