SPECIAL REPORT: FHWA stalls PA tolling application for I-80

| 12/13/2007

Thursday, Dec. 13, 2007 –Federal Highway Administration officials sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission requesting additional information and highlighting concerns with the Commission’s application to toll Interstate 80.

OOIDA officials say the latest development concerning Pennsylvania’s 311-mile portion of Interstate 80 is a small but important victory for truckers and highway users opposed to the tolling of existing federal highways.

FHWA holds the final say in whether the I-80 application is eligible to move forward as part of an interstate tolling program known as the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program.

Critics of the application, including U.S. Rep. John Peterson, R-PA, have said that they don’t believe I-80 meets the criteria for the program.

“This letter didn’t come as a surprise to me, knowing full well, despite claims to the contrary by the Turnpike Commission, the tolling program Pennsylvania is applying for is dedicated primarily for reconstruction and rehabilitation of an interstate,” Peterson stated in a press release. “If the Turnpike Commission and PennDOT are complete and truthful in their response to the FHWA, there’s little chance of them securing tolling approval.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has consistently taken a stand against tolling initiatives, contending that they amount to the double taxation of highway users, are financially detrimental to truckers, and have been proven to cause unsafe conditions on alternate routes as highway users avoid tolls.

OOIDA Senior Government Affairs Representative Mike Joyce said OOIDA members can be proud of their effort to oppose interstate tolling.

“This is not the knockout punch, but we’ve won round one. Chalk one up for truckers, owner-operators and highway users,” Joyce said.

“The fact is that Pennsylvania officials will come back at this. This is going to be a long fight, but we’re ready to go 15 rounds if need be,” Joyce told Land Line. “ ‘Sting like a bee.’ ”

Wednesday Joyce hand-delivered a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation officials, which had been signed by a coalition of highway-user groups opposed to interstate tolling.

The letter stated that Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and FHWA Administrator Richard Capka should deny Pennsylvania’s application to toll I-80 based on a number of factors, including government responsibility.

“We need to do a gut check on how current resources are being used before being asked to step up to the plate and pay more for a system of financing that we are beginning to question and ‘trust’ today,” Joyce said. “Responsible use of current resources should be the priority. Unfortunately, there are too many elected and government officials that continue to pour more water into a broken bucket, instead of fixing the hole in the bottom of the bucket.”

Also signing the letter were members of the American Trucking Association, American Highway Users Alliance and Natso, the national association of truck stop and travel plaza operators.

OOIDA has sent numerous truckers and officials to testify at various hearings, meetings and symposiums across the state.

Joyce is scheduled to testify during a Pennsylvania House Republican Policy Committee hearing at 11 a.m., Friday, Dec. 14, at the Grove City Municipal Building, 123 W. Main St., Grove City, PA.

Members of the Republican committee have initiated an effort to rescind legislation known as “Act 44,” that Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell signed into law in July to enable the state to pursue interstate tolls.

Despite what the critics of the tolling proposal are calling a major hurdle for Pennsylvania officials to overcome, Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission CEO Joseph Brimmeier issued an optimistic statement.

“We are pleased that FHWA has sent us this request for additional information,” Brimmeier stated in a press release.

“A project of this magnitude naturally is going to entail a considerable amount of information sharing among the agencies involved. In fact, we fully expected there would be an ongoing dialogue between the FHWA, PennDOT and the Turnpike Commission throughout this process. We knew before we even got started that this is a lengthy process, and we are continuing to cooperate with the FHWA to provide all the data they need to make an informed decision.”

Brimmeier and top PennDOT officials filed the application to toll I-80 the same week in mid-October that PennDOT transferred control of I-80 to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

The deal struck in October put the turnpike commission on the hook to pay PennDOT upwards of $1 billion per year for 50 years with or without I-80 becoming a toll road.

As FHWA officials previously mentioned in correspondence with Brimmeier and other transportation officials, the I-80 tolling application is not a done deal.

The Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program had three available slots when the program was created in the 2005 federal highway legislation known as SAFETEA-LU.

FHWA has already filled two of the three slots.

In 2003, FHWA named Virginia’s portion of I-81 to the program and followed in 2005 by naming a proposal for truck-only lanes on I-70 from Missouri to Ohio to the program.

– By David Tanner, staff writer