PA Turnpike official says I-80 tolls better than privatization

| 8/29/2007

Joseph Brimmeier, CEO of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, has been touring the state in recent days speaking to media and community groups about a recent proposal to increase turnpike tolls and convert Interstate 80 into a toll road.

During budget proceedings in July, the Pennsylvania State Legislature passed Act 44 as part of transportation funding legislation HB1590. The act enables the state to issue bonds to pay for roads, bridges and mass transit and repay the debt through tolls.

The funding, Brimmeier said, will allow the state to avoid leasing infrastructure assets to private investors.

“Act 44 actually was a proposal by the Turnpike in lieu of selling the Turnpike,” Brimmeier told Land Line Magazine during a telephone interview Tuesday, Aug. 28.

Gov. Ed Rendell has said that the state could generate $30 billion from a turnpike lease to investors. When he issued a request to see which firms were interested in being a possible bidder for the turnpike, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission submitted its proposal.

“Act 44 allows the Commonwealth to still maintain control of the Turnpike,” he said. “In other words, in four years from now, if things need change or need to be adjusted, they can be adjusted in Act 44 with a simple change in the legislation. If you (lease) the Turnpike, you’re locked in for the next 99 years or however long the lease is for.”

Although new tolls on I-80 could be construed as the lesser of two evils, officials with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association remain against the proposal.

OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer said transportation funds have been squandered on pork-barrel projects over the years and that a proposed new toll on I-80 would amount to double taxation for truckers who already pay to use the highways.

Pennsylvania has several funding methods outlined in Act 44 including the proposed I-80 tolls; the Pennsylvania Turnpike toll increase of 25 percent in 2009 and 3 percent per year after that; special revenue bonds and monetization bonds.

Brimmeier said tolls from I-80 would stay with I-80 and not be siphoned away for mass transit.

“Let’s just clear that up right now,” he said. “None of the tolls from I-80 will be used for mass transit.”

In the overall scope of Act 44, there are funds dedicated to mass transit, including programs in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. A combined amount of revenue from bonds and tolls would amount to $750 million in 2008, $800 million in 2009 and $900 million in 2010. Transit programs in 73 jurisdictions would get $300 million, $350 million and $400 million in 2008, 2009 and 2010, respectively.

Truck tolls on I-80 would be proposed at the same rate per mile as on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Brimmeier said.

Toll booths – up to 10 – would potentially be up and running on I-80 by 2010, Brimmeier said.

Gov. Rendell has stated publicly that he may still ask companies interested in bidding on the Turnpike to submit formal proposals.

The lease concept, as well as Act 44, has drawn criticism from highway users and a number of lawmakers who liken it to the lease Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed to give private investors from Spain and Australia operational control of the Indiana Toll Road for 75 years.

Two federal lawmakers – Rep. Phil English and Rep. John Peterson, both Republicans from western Pennsylvania districts – are hoping to get legislation passed in September to cut federal funding that could be used to convert I-80 into a toll road.

Brimmeier has fired back in the press at English and Peterson for exercising federal clout to influence the state government and voters.

When asked if he had anything further to add to Land Line about the Act 44 critics, Brimmeier replied: “I think you’ve probably read them all.”

OOIDA officials say Association members should contact their federal lawmakers and tell them to support the bill HR3250 sponsored by English.

The U.S. House and Senate are scheduled to return to session on Tuesday, Sept. 4.

– By David Tanner, staff writer