SPECIAL REPORT: Pennsylvania lawmakers renew effort to toll I-80

| 5/15/2009

Friday, May 15, 2009 – A state lawmaker in Pennsylvania has renewed the effort to convert Interstate 80 into a toll road.

A year ago, the Federal Highway Administration rejected Pennsylvania’s request for tolling authority for I-80, saying the application was incomplete.

On Tuesday, May 12, Pennsylvania House Rep. John E. Pallone, D-Armstrong-Westmoreland, filed HR307 urging the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to complete the application and resubmit it to the FHWA.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association immediately responded with a renewed effort against the measure, saying that tolls on federally built highways amount to double taxation for all users.

“Our members should double their efforts on this,” OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer told Land Line Magazine.

“They’re taking an interstate highway paid for with tax dollars and tolling it to supposedly offset the cost to users. Highway users have paid and will continue to pay. All you’re doing is turning cars and trucks into cash cows.”

The debate over interstate tolling heated up in 2007 when Pennsylvania state lawmakers passed Act 44, shifting control of I-80 from PennDOT to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. Act 44 called for I-80 to be tolled, but FHWA officials chose not to accept the application into one of the administration’s handful of pilot programs involving tolls.

An important part of the debate for truckers and highway users is that revenue from I-80 tolls would go toward fixing other roads and bridges around the state. Pallone’s resolution mirrors Act 44 in that regard, saying toll revenue should be spread around to other state transportation needs.

OOIDA is not alone in its quest to keep federal highways toll free. A number of highway user groups are on board, as are some members of Congress. In February of this year, U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-PA, filed HR1071, known as the “Keep America’s Freeways Free Act,” in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Thompson believes tolling I-80 is the wrong choice for funding transportation projects.

“I think their efforts are misguided,” Thompson told Land Line Magazine.

“Despite the fact that this Resolution 307 has a small number of sponsors, I find that there is a bipartisan opposition in the state House to tolling.”

Thompson said Pennsylvania should be focused on addressing wasteful and abusive spending by the state DOT and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Authority.

“Infrastructure and transportation needs to be funded, but tolling of I-80 is not the right approach,” he said.

Thompson said work continues in trying to get HR1071 incorporated into the next highway and transportation bill being drafted on Capitol Hill. It would stop I-80 and other federal highways from being tolled.

OOIDA supports the Thompson bill in Congress.

“All of our members should be calling their congressmen to support HR1071, and all of our Pennsylvania members should be calling their state lawmakers to defeat this HR307 resolution in the state House,” OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs Mike Joyce said.

“We’re going to be relentless in our effort to defeat the conversion of I-80 into a toll road.”

Pallone’s state resolution is under jurisdiction of the House Transportation Committee which is chaired by Rep. Joseph Markosek, D-Allegheny-Westmoreland.

Markosek, credited with authoring much of Act 44, supports the effort to toll I-80.

However, Markosek’s committee stalled legislation in 2008 that would have enabled Gov. Ed Rendell to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to private investors for $12.8 billion.

Pennsylvania continues to struggle with transportation issues and funding. The state has 6,000 structurally deficient bridges, the third most in the nation, and 39,000 miles of aging state-owned highways.

– By David Tanner, staff writer