SPECIAL REPORT: Lawmakers comment on I-80 lease timing

| 10/19/2007

Friday, Oct. 19, 2007 – The timing of a lease document in Pennsylvania has raised the ire of lawmakers opposed to Interstate 80 becoming a toll road.

The parties involved – the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which is handing over control of I-80 to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for 50 years – agreed to lease terms on Saturday, Oct. 13, a PennDOT spokesman told Land Line.

But state Rep. Scott E. Hutchinson, R-Venango, believes the agencies may have violated a deadline of “prior to Oct. 15” to sign the lease because agency officials have admitted that some particulars –such as official signatures – were still being worked out on the 15th.

“We were disappointed that it was signed; however, my understanding is that it was signed late and that may put the whole thing in jeopardy,” Hutchinson told Land Line. “I’m not an attorney, but that’s an interesting angle because I think the whole deal is terrible and if we can stop it whichever way, that would be a good thing.”

Agency officials from both the turnpike and PennDOT say that nothing secretive was done and that the lease was “agreed to in principle” prior to the 15th even though official signatures were not laid down until after the deadline.

Hutchinson said the discrepancy may be grounds for a court action or some other type of action. He did not say on Friday, Oct. 19, whether he was going to pursue action.

Pennsylvania Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo addressed the deadline issue by saying agency officials had reached their deal “in principle” the weekend of Oct. 13-14 and that there was nothing secretive about it.

He added, however, that agency officials had spent part of Monday, Oct. 15, finalizing the official document.

Land Line and others were still waiting Friday for the official lease document to be posted on the project Web site. Click here to view the site.

Hutchinson calls the whole I-80 plan a bad deal for Pennsylvania.

Earlier this month, Hutchinson filed a bill – HB1878 – that would void Gov. Rendell’s funding package for transportation because it contained the tolling of I-80. The bill was in the House Transportation Committee at press time.

Act 44, signed in July by Gov. Ed Rendell to define the funding mechanism for the transportation budget, has included tolls for I-80 and increased tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Hutchinson said he is against Act 44 because it perpetuates the diversion of highway funds for use in mass transit projects. He also says the I-80 tolling proposal would hurt truckers and small businesses.

“Obviously, I have been contacted by many trucking companies about what a devastating impact this will have on their lives,” Hutchinson said. “It’s out of their pockets, both in money directly and in time. I look at them as a good ally in hopefully changing the picture.”

U.S. Rep. John Peterson, R-PA, believes the whole I-80 proposal is being rushed.

Peterson and Hutchinson stood with members of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association during an anti-toll rally Sept. 24 in Harrisburg, PA.

“Tolling of I-80 has little to do with solving Pennsylvania's transportation and infrastructure problems. It has a lot to do with paying off debt and fixing problems that should have been addressed years ago,” Peterson wrote in an editorial this week which he titled “Repeal Act 44 again.”

“The Governor and legislature even ignored their own 2005 PennDOT study, which advised against tolling I-80,” Peterson wrote.

– By David Tanner, staff writer