Pennsylvania lawmaker urges DOT to reject I-80 tolling

| 11/16/2009

Pennsylvania House Republican Leader Sam Smith, R-Jefferson County, is urging U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to reject the state’s application to toll Interstate 80.

Smith stated in a letter to LaHood, dated Tuesday, Nov. 10, that he opposes I-80 tolls not only because of the economic impact of tolling in a downturned economy, but because the company hired by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to provide independent analysis was “an organization which never before studied highways.”

Turnpike officials contracted with Provident Capital Advisors, formerly Provident Healthcare Coalition LLC, to perform the I-80 market analysis. The analysis, to no one’s surprise, favored the case for tolling. Provident, according to its Web site, specializes in correctional facilities and housing.

“A layman might conclude Turnpike officials or their contractor looked for someone to give them the answers they sought, instead of finding someone qualified to provide an actual study of the value of I-80,” Smith stated in his letter.

“I oppose this application for the above stated reason, but also because I think it is a bad policy to solely toll this particular freeway in order to generate a revenue stream to help meet the mass transit, highway and bridge needs throughout the Commonwealth.”

Turnpike officials defend their contract with Provident, saying the Louisiana-based company has no other ties to the pike and no stake in the outcome.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, which assumed operational control of I-80 as part of a 2007 state law known as Act 44 – the same law that directed the agency to pursue tolling – refiled its application Oct. 30 to the Federal Highway Administration seeking tolling authority.

Back in 2008, the FHWA returned the original application to the state, saying it lacked sufficient evidence to be accepted into the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program.

Turnpike officials maintain that the original application was never “rejected” and that the whole process has been an ongoing dialogue with the FHWA.

Tolling a federal highway sticks in the craw of truckers and highway users who already pay for operation and maintenance with taxes they pay on fuel.

“Sam Smith clearly understands the impact that such a policy will have on the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – their ability to attract businesses and create jobs, and the imbalance that would be created by taking revenue from one part of the state and diverting it to another area of the state,” said OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs Mike Joyce.

“We’re very pleased that not only has the Republican leader in the state House of Representatives stepped forward, but that many other representatives from the state of Pennsylvania and members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, have as well.”

Grassroots efforts continue, as well.

In October, a coalition of chambers of commerce and economic development officials in rural Pennsylvania published their own economic study of I-80 tolling.

Their study showed that truckers, including those from out of state – contribute $90 million in taxes while operating on Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania. The annual cost of operation and maintenance of the highway is $80 million. Drivers of passenger vehicles contribute another $40 million per year in taxes driving on I-80.

Turnpike CEO Joseph Brimmeier responded to the chambers’ study by saying the effort to solve the state’s transportation funding crisis “cannot and will not come at the expense of Pennsylvania’s economy.”

– By David Tanner, staff writer