Pennsylvania road debates wrought with politics, backbiting

| 8/17/2007

Political backlash is ruling the roost in Pennsylvania these days as battles continue about the proposed tolling of Interstate 80 and possible lease of the state turnpike.

Much of the war being fought is with rhetoric and backbiting by high-profile politicians.

At the center of it is Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat who has proposed tolls on Interstate 80 and who has threatened to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to private investors.

Rendell’s tolling plan received approval from the state legislature, but U.S. Reps. Phil English, R-PA, and John Peterson, R-PA, have vowed to stop it on a federal level by introducing legislation to block federal funds.

Rendell and State Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, launched character attacks this week against English and Peterson.

Fumo was quoted in major newspapers as saying he was “never impressed” with Peterson as an elected official.

But Fumo has his own fish to fry. In February, Fumo stepped down from his post as Democratic chairman of the Pennsylvania Senate Appropriations Committee after being indicted by a federal grand jury on 139 charges that include mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and filing a false tax return.

Prosecutors allege that Fumo misused $1 million in state funds and $1 million from a charity called Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods – a charity Fumo runs – for personal and political gain.

Fumo, still active as a powerful state senator despite the indictments, claims on his Web site to be an architect of the Rendell transportation plan.

Rendell’s proposal means that highway users are faced with the likelihood of a 25-percent increase in turnpike tolls in 2009 and the possibility of I-80 becoming a toll road.

“The level of rhetoric in Pennsylvania is astounding,” Rod Nofziger, director of government affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, told Land Line on Thursday, Aug. 16.

OOIDA has issued statements of support for proposed legislation by English to keep I-80 a toll-free interstate.

OOIDA officials view tolls on interstates to be double taxation on truckers, who already pay fuel taxes and mileage taxes – sometimes called user fees – to run on those roads.

– By David Tanner, staff writer