HARRISBURG -- Gov. Ed Rendell assailed two Republican congressmen for trying to block the state's plans to place tolls on Interstate 80, saying their actions leave him no choice but to revive his unpopular plan to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private operator.
Mr. Rendell was at a political fund-raiser in Philadelphia Tuesday night when he was told that U.S. Reps. Phil English, R-Erie, and John Peterson, R-Venango, had unexpectedly inserted a provision into a federal transportation funding bill. It would prohibit use of federal funds to plan for or construct toll booths or toll "gantries" made of structural steel at 30-mile intervals along the 311-mile road that crosses northern Pennsylvania from Ohio to New Jersey.
Mr. Rendell said he "was shocked and disappointed" to learn of the congressional action, which is not yet final. He will urge Democrats in Congress to remove the ban on federal funds for I-80, but he said that may not happen until October.
Meanwhile, he added, "we can't afford to wait" to find a way to generate nearly $1 billion a year in new funding for fixing roads and bridges and aiding deficit-ridden mass transit agencies, including the Port Authority of Allegheny County.
The Legislature last week approved House Bill 1590, which will provide about $950 million a year over 10 years for transportation improvements. For this fiscal year, however, the plan provides only $750 million.
The transportation funding was to be generated by a 25 percent increase in Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls, starting in 2009, and putting tolls on I-80, starting in 2010.
Of the $950 million a year, $500 million was to be spent on roads and bridges and $450 million on mass transit. But without the new tolls on I-80, the financing will fall short, the governor said.
"So we have to have a Plan B, a backup plan" for financing the much-needed road, bridge and transit improvements, he said.
Within 30 days he plans to ask private companies to offer bids on how much they would pay to run the Pennsylvania Turnpike for up to 99 years. He thinks such a lease could generate up to $1.7 billion a year for 10 years -- considerably more than would be obtained under House Bill 1590.
Mr. Rendell proposed leasing the turnpike in February, but few legislators embraced the idea. Since some of the bidders could be based in foreign countries, legislators feared the plan could turn control, maintenance and toll collection on a key road like the turnpike over to foreigners.
Legislators also said they'd be giving up state control over an enterprise that generates about $400 million in profit each year.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, which would cease to exist under the Rendell leasing plan, also strongly fought it.
With little advance notice Tuesday night, the two GOP congressman inserted into a transportation spending bill the provision to prohibit the use of federal funds for establishing, erecting or collecting tolls on I-80.
Mr. Rendell said he interprets the provision as a way to prohibit use of federal funds to pay employees to process the state's application to toll the road. The state had planned to ask the U.S. Department of Transportation soon for permission to impose tolls on the highway.
Mr. English represents northwest Pennsylvania and Mr. Peterson represents north-central Pennsylvania, through which much of I-80 runs. They said their constituents shouldn't have to pay tolls to bail out urban transit agencies.
"Tolling I-80 rolls up the welcome mat and tells visitors and customers of local businesses to go elsewhere," Mr. English said. It "slams the door on economic expansion and opportunities in our region. We are not going to stand by while Harrisburg raids Western Pennsylvania travelers and picks truckers' pockets to prop up Philadelphia's mass transit system."
Under House Bill 1590, the turnpike commission would also collect the tolls on I-80, a road that is now maintained by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Mr. Peterson criticized giving I-80 to the commission, which some say is plagued with political patronage.
"Taking I-80 from PennDOT and giving it to the bloated turnpike commission to pepper tolls across rural Pennsylvania was a terrible decision and would cause irreversible economic damage," Mr. Peterson contended.
State Sen. Roger Madigan, R-Bradford, disagreed with the GOP congressmen and said he favors I-80 tolls. He said that about 70 percent of I-80 traffic is from out of state, mainly truckers, who haven't been paying their fair share for I-80 maintenance.
Mr. Madigan voted for the transportation plan that the Legislature approved last week. He said the state must begin quickly to spend money fixing roads and bridges and helping mass transit.
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said he and other congressional Democrats will work to kill the English-Peterson amendment.
Democrats "are working to ensure that I-80 will be a toll road," he said. "This money is important for the Port Authority. It's a critical piece toward providing a predictable source of funding for mass transit."
Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at email@example.com or 717-787-4254.