Rendell revives leasing turnpike if tolling I-80 fails

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HARRISBURG -- With two Republican congressmen threatening to block the state's plans to establish tolls on Interstate 80, Gov. Ed Rendell said today he's resurrecting his plan to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private operator.

Mr. Rendell, a Democrat, told reporters he was "disappointed and shocked" to learn, last night, about attempts by U.S. Reps. Phil English, R-Erie,and John Peterson, R-Centre, to prohibit the use of any federal funds to implement Pennsylvania's just-adopted transportation funding plan, which includes putting up to 10 toll areas on I-80.

The congressmen inserted a provision in a House transportation spending bill to prohibit the use of federal funds in erecting or collecting first-time tolls on I-80. Mr. Rendell said he interprets that move to also prohibit federal funds from being used to pay employees to process the state's application to toll the road.

The state had planned to ask the federal Department of Transportation soon for permission to places tolls on the road.

Since tolls on I-80 account for about half of the projected $950 million a year the state would raise under its newly approved transportation funding plan, the effort to block the tolls on I-80 is a very serious matter, Mr. Rendell said. Of the $950 million a year that was to be raised for the next 10 years, $500 million was to be spent on roads and bridges and $450 million a year on mass transit.

The governor said that he will use the next 30 days to seek bids from private companies that want to run the turnpike for up to 99 years. He has estimated that such a lease could generate $1.7 billion a year for 10 years, which would be spent on fixing roads and bridges and helping deficit-ridden transit agencies.

"We have to have a Plan B, a fallback plan," in case Congress gives final approval to the English/Peterson amendment when the new federal fiscal year starts Oct. 1, the governor said.

There has been little support in the Legislature for the Rendell plan to lease the turnpike, but the governor said attitudes might change once legislators see how much money a turnpike lease would bring.

If Congress kills the English/Peterson amendment in a conference committee later this summer, the original $950 million a year plan that the Legislature approved last week could still go forward.

More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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