Congressman promising action to stop I-80 tolls

| Friday, December 07, 2007

U.S. Rep. John Peterson, R-PA, vows to make it “as difficult as possible” for state and federal transportation officials to convert Interstate 80 into a toll road in his home state.

Peterson hinted at federal legislative action on the horizon, but stopped short of making a formal announcement when he spoke at a symposium sponsored by local business leaders Friday, Nov. 30, in Clarion, PA.

“We have several initiatives that we’re going to attempt to make it as difficult as possible that there be any chance that the Department of Transportation and Secretary Mary Peters can do this,” Peterson said.

“One of them I won’t share with you at the moment because I don’t think it would be wise to share it. But, the moment we finalize it and do it, we’ll share it with the press.”

Peterson’s press secretary told Land Line on Thursday, Dec. 6, that the plans were still hush-hush and not ready for release.

During the Friday symposium, Peterson said the battle to stop I-80 tolls can be fought on several fronts.

“If it can be an open, national discussion, I think we will win,” he said. “We’ve got to get it on the front of where it is a national discussion. Should we toll the interstate system (that was) built as a freeway? Should we go down that road? I think the majority of Congress would support no-tolling on the interstate system, but that’s just my opinion.”

OOIDA staff joined elected officials, transportation officials and local business leaders at the symposium sponsored by the Clarion Area Chamber of Business and Industry.

Mike Joyce, senior government affairs representative from OOIDA’s Washington, DC, office, spoke at the symposium on behalf of small-business truckers.

“I am a native of Pennsylvania and very disheartened to see the moves being made to convert I-80 to a toll road, and similar efforts to sell the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” Joyce said, adding that OOIDA is fighting alongside Peterson and others to stop the proposals.

“I do not doubt that there are needs, and I do not doubt the willingness of highway users to pay for those needs, but I think we need to do a gut check on how current resources are being used before we are asked to step up to the plate and pay more taxes.”

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission signed a lease in mid-October to gain control of I-80 from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The two agencies applied to obtain tolling authority from the Federal Highway Administration. FHWA is currently reviewing the application.

With or without tolls on I-80, the commission is on the hook to pay PennDOT annual payments that approach $1 billion under the terms of the lease.

Turnpike Commission CEO Joseph Brimmeier, who fielded a number of tough questions at the symposium, explained what would happen if the FHWA does not approve tolling for I-80.

“We would probably recall the bonds and repay the interest on those with the existing tolling structure on the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” Brimmeier said during the question-and-answer period that followed the symposium.

Peterson was more abrupt about the situation.

“They’re on the hook for this money. They’re on the hook for this whole deal,” he said.

Peterson promised to fight the proposal at the federal level and to support state and local officials in their efforts to do so.

“We will not leave a stone unturned, and we will not pass up an opportunity to help our state legislators repeal their act,” he said. “We will be as public as we have to be. This is a major turning point in Pennsylvania’s future, and we can’t lose.”

Peterson encouraged people to contact Secretary Peters to show their opposition.

“This is a one-person jury,” Peterson said of Peters.

– By David Tanner, staff writer
david_tanner@landlinemag.com

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