Truckers invited to attend business group’s symposium on I-80 tolls

| 11/28/2007

After receiving dozens of calls from concerned business owners in northern Pennsylvania, leaders with an area chamber of commerce decided to invite officials to speak at a symposium on the issue of Interstate 80 tolls.                                               

A press announcement about the symposium from the Clarion Area Chamber of Business and Industry stated that organizers hope to involve tolling opponents as well as the promoters of the I-80 proposal in panel discussions at the “Perspectives on I-80 Symposium.”

It is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Friday, Nov. 30, at the Zion Baptist Church, 114 Zion Road, Clarion, PA. The church is three miles south of the I-80 Clarion Exit 62 on Route 68.

Mike Joyce, a government affairs specialist in OOIDA’s Washington, DC, office is scheduled to participate in the panel discussion on “Community Perspectives.”

That panel discussion is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. According to the chamber’s announcement, the panel will include speakers from tourism, local government and critical services entities. Topics of discussion will include the needs of communities, safety, quality of life, transportation and tourism.

Clarion Chamber Executive Director Tracy Becker says northern Pennsylvania business groups have been expressing concerns since July, when Gov. Ed Rendell signed legislation with the intention of converting Pennsylvania’s 311 miles of I-80 into a toll road. The Federal Highway Administration is currently reviewing the proposal.

“We started getting phone calls here and at other chambers that the economic impact it’s going to have is going to be huge,” Becker told Land Line.

“We understand that there is a concern in regard for the funding of roads and things like that, but the thing is, tolling Interstate 80, we feel, is not the way to go about raising the funds needed,” Becker said.

On the list of invited guests are elected officials, including outspoken toll opponent Rep. John Peterson, R-PA, and several state lawmakers, area business owners, representatives from the trucking industry, and officials from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and state department of transportation.

Chamber officials are hoping to have people from both sides of the issue to talk.

Clarion Mayor John Stroup said that a number of cities along the I-80 corridor are concerned that traffic will increase on toll-free roads if I-80 becomes a toll road.

“I’m concerned about the diversion of traffic off the interstate to avoid the tolls and into our towns,” Stroup told “Land Line Now” on XM Satellite Radio.

Business owners are worried that tolling the interstate could force existing businesses to relocate and new businesses to stay away because of the cost of doing business, Stroup said.

Truckers are included in that group. Truckers already pay federal taxes to run on interstates, and tolls would amount to a double tax.

State transportation officials signed a lease document in mid-October that turned over control of I-80 in the Keystone State from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for the purpose of tolling.

Turnpike officials then submitted an application to FHWA to obtain tolling authority under one of FHWA’s pilot programs to allow interstate tolls.

The turnpike commission is on the hook to pay the state hundreds of millions of dollars per year regardless of whether FHWA approves the proposal to toll I-80.

In a 2005 report, Pennsylvania DOT officials were of the opinion that tolling I-80 was not in the state’s best interest.

Gov. Rendell continues to discuss a possible lease of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to private investors if the I-80 toll plan does not advance.

– By David Tanner, staff writer