BULLETIN: Truckers say I-80 tolls will harm Pennsylvania economy

| 10/26/2007

Friday, Oct. 26, 2007 – Small-business truckers say that tolls on Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania will put companies out of business and force trucks onto less-safe secondary roads.

Points of contention against plans by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to toll I-80 include safety issues, increased costs of operation and a lack of public scrutiny, officials with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association stated Friday, Oct. 26.

OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer spoke during a field hearing sponsored by the Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA.

“There needs to be an examination of how current resources are being used before the public is asked to pay more for a system of financing that the public is beginning to question and distrust,” Spencer said.

The panel of speakers also included U.S. Rep. John Peterson, R-PA, owners of several trucking companies, and a number of state and local officials.

Spencer thanked state Reps. David Millard, R-Columbia County, and Scott Hutchinson, R-Vernango, for providing the forum to speak. Spencer and the lawmakers agreed that the Keystone State’s economy would be drastically affected if truckers were paying high tolls to run east-west on I-80 or the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

“The higher tolls impose a severe financial hardship on small-business truckers who are already coping with narrow to nonexistent profit margins,” Spencer said.

Feeling the pinch would be trucking companies such as L&H Trucking of Hanover, PA. Company President Glenn Longstreth said the company includes 50 refrigerated dry vans doing business up and down sections of I-80.

“It’s extremely difficult in this market to remain competitive,” Longstreth said. “We’re operating on razor-thin profit margins.”

Dennis Curtain of Weis Markets, based in Sunbury, PA, said food transport for his company amounts to 20,000 trips per year on I-80 in five states.

“We will pay nearly $1 million a year in I-80 tolls,” Curtain said. “Those costs will be passed on to our customers in Pennsylvania, even those customers who live nowhere near Interstate 80.”

Tolls on I-80 would force traffic from the interstate onto secondary roads not designed for the increased volume, Spencer stated in his testimony. Truckers hoping to make it will not have a choice, he said.

“The decision of truck drivers to use these less suitable routes is not based on an attempt to maximize their profits; rather, it’s an exercise in survival,” he said.

U.S. Rep. John Peterson, R-PA, who stood with OOIDA at an anti-toll rally Sept. 24 in the state capitol of Harrisburg, said he will do whatever it takes to do away with the I-80 tolling proposal.

His staff calculated that a truck will pay $152.50 to cross the state once tolls are enacted on I-80.

“With a 3-percent escalator, it will be $200 in a decade,” Peterson said.

Peterson criticized state lawmakers and transportation officials responsible for the legislation for not holding hearings prior to the passage of Act 44, a transportation funding mechanism that arose out of HB1590 signed into law in July by Gov. Ed Rendell.

Peterson said current and former state budgets were set up to divert highway funds to other projects.

“If the administration was coveting wise use of highway funds, this wouldn’t be happening,” Peterson said.

Rendell is hoping to find at least $965 million per year in new funding for highways, bridges and mass transit.

Act 44 called for the lease of I-80 from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, the latter of which would be responsible for tolling the interstate to generate revenue. The lease agreement was signed in mid-October, but tolls cannot be enacted without authorization by the Federal Highway Administration.

The FHWA indicated in writing to the commission and PennDOT on Oct. 17 that tolling authority has not yet been granted.

Several speakers at Friday’s field hearing encouraged the public to attend upcoming public hearings in Pennsylvania regarding the tolling plan, and to contact state and lawmakers to oppose interstate tolling in general.

A public hearing schedule is posted here.

– By David Tanner, staff writer