Plan to toll I-80 approved
By Adam Smeltz - firstname.lastname@example.org
It's all but certain: Tolls appear to be en route for Interstate 80.
Within two years, the 311-mile stretch that cuts across Pennsylvania could see as many as 10 toll plazas under a state bill approved this week. Gov. Ed Rendell is expected to sign the legislation today, though the federal government has yet to sign off on the tolls.
The state House approved the transportation bill Tuesday with a 124-79 vote; on Monday, the Senate voted 30-19 on the measure.
In addition to I-80 tolls, the bill calls for $750 million in spending this year on highway and bridge repairs, plus on mass transit systems statewide. The plan is designed to grow the transportation spending over the next 10 years, relying heavily on toll revenue from the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-80.
Supporters on Tuesday applauded what they called a needed investment in the state infrastructure and in mass transit. More than 20 percent of the state's bridges are structurally deficient, and more than 8,500 miles of state-maintained pavement are in poor condition, according to the state Department of Transportation.
But three Centre County legislators decried the bill's approach to I-80. State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, and state Reps. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, and Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, all voted against the legislation.
Corman said the toll plazas -- at least one of which could land in Centre County -- could push highway traffic onto rural, secondary roads.
That "goes against the purpose of the interstate, which was to get traffic off the rural roads," Corman said.
Beyond that, he said, lawmakers were "asked to vote blindly, essentially," on the tolls. The legislation would give the Turnpike Commission the ability to set toll rates and toll-plaza locations.
It also would authorize more than $13 billion in new borrowing. That money would help fund the transportation efforts until a 25 percent toll rate increase takes effect on the turnpike in 2009. New revenue from I-80 tolls, once established, would also staunch the borrowing.
Corman said using borrowed money for operating costs is "just bad public policy."
Still, he said, if the toll plazas move forward, he will try to prevent them from having an adverse impact on commuter traffic.
Benninghoff called the transportation bill a "half-baked" approach that left too many unanswered questions. He pointed to a PennDOT study on the prospect of I-80 tolls.
"Based on the long timetable to realize benefits, the high costs of converting the road to toll and the fact that a financial break-even point is decades away, it is recommended that converting I-80 to a toll road not be pursued at this time," the study reads.
The study also suggests that the trucking industry and communities and residents along I-80 are likely to oppose the toll idea.
"I think inevitably we're going to see one or two (toll plazas) somewhere throughout" the county, Benninghoff said. Under the transportation bill, he said, the state may begin borrowing money for I-80 changes without having received final authorization from the federal government.
"To me, it's risky financing to be imposing on future generations of Pennsylvania," Benninghoff said.
State Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven, also voted against the transportation bill. State Rep. Camille "Bud" George, D-Houtzdale, voted for it.
Conklin, who opposed the measure, said edits in the legislation allowed the possibility of too many toll booths, said Tor Michaels, his chief of staff.
For now, Michaels said, Conklin would have supported the addition of I-80 toll plazas only at the borders with Ohio and New Jersey.
Doug Hecox, a Federal Highway Administration spokesman, said the federal government maintains several highway toll options.
He said the state can work with the FHA to find the one most suitable. Under any scenario, Hecox said, he thinks any toll revenue generated by a highway must be returned directly to that portion of road.
That can allow the state to commit the funds once used for highway maintenance to other priorities, he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Adam Smeltz can be reached at 231-4631.