SPECIAL REPORT: Strike three on I-80 tolls

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 4/6/2010

Tuesday, April 6 – Truckers are hailing victory today as the proposal to convert Interstate 80 into a toll road in Pennsylvania has struck out.

For the third time since 2007, the Federal Highway Administration has rejected the application filed by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. The news on Tuesday came straight from Gov. Ed Rendell who conceded that the plan has been defeated.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association members and leadership have fought the I-80 toll proposal since it was just a bill in the state Legislature.

“It shows that accountability and the responsible use of taxpayer resources wins the day and that diversion of those hard-earned dollars for unrelated uses is unacceptable,” said OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs Mike Joyce.

“As we have been saying for over two years, the Pennsylvania legislation known as Act 44 was flawed from the beginning, forcing the state DOT and the Turnpike to apply not once, not twice, but three times for tolling authority on I-80. We hope they have finally recognized they have struck out and should take a seat on the bench.”

U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-PA, and former Rep. John Peterson, R-PA, worked tirelessly to stop I-80 from becoming a toll road. Other lawmakers shared in the victory, including Democratic Reps. Kathy Dahlkemper, Paul Kanjorski and Chris Carney, as well as numerous state representatives and senators.

“It is clear that the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood followed the letter of the law in making this decision,” Rep. Thompson said in a statement. “Act 44 never met the criteria set by the federal law. This is the third time FHWA has turned down the application. We can only hope the third time is the charm, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, governor and leaders in Harrisburg will get realistic about the commonwealth’s transportation future.”

Gov. Rendell said he would call a special session of the Legislature to discuss transportation needs now that tolling has not been granted.

“We simply cannot wait to replace these funds,” said Rendell, who had incorporated the proposed I-80 toll revenue into his 2010 budget request. He said no specific option was on the table at this time, but nothing was off the table either, including the possibility of leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike to private investors.

Former FHWA Chief Counsel Marcus Lemon was part of the Bush administration team that rejected Pennsylvania’s application in 2007 and again in 2008. He said he was glad to see his predecessor in the FHWA come to the same conclusion – that the application did not meet the criteria of a federal tolling pilot program.

“The toll proposal may be dead from a political standpoint, but from a legal standpoint there is no limit to how many times the Turnpike Commission can apply,” Lemon told Land Line on Tuesday.

“The real story here is that the inadequacy of the application really transcended politics. They had one last good bite at the apple, and they blew it with an inadequate tolling and finance study by a company that was created and hired for that purpose.”

Lemon, now an attorney for Baker & Miller specializing in public-private partnerships, says the state needs to stop relying on Act 44 and reform transportation funding. As a point of record, Lemon favors leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike to private investors.

Leasing infrastructure and public-private partnerships will continue to be controversial, but for today truckers are celebrating the defeat of I-80 tolls.

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