No tolls for Pa. I-80 leaves huge gap

Rendell calls special session of Legislature

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HARRISBURG -- Now that federal officials have rejected the state's attempt to place tolls on Interstate 80, Gov. Ed Rendell plans to convene a special session of the Legislature to figure new ways to generate at least $472 million a year to improve roads, bridges and public transit.

The U.S. Department of Transportation notified Mr. Rendell Tuesday of its decision against putting tolls on I-80, a move that was strongly opposed by members of Congress, truckers, residents and businesses along the 311-mile highway that stretches from Ohio to New Jersey.

"It's a bummer," Mr. Rendell said of the federal rejection, adding there is no way to appeal it. The concept previously had been rejected by the Bush administration, but the state had hoped for a more favorable review from the Obama administration.

Mr. Rendell said he will consult with General Assembly leaders about when the special session on transportation financing will begin, but it could start before the end of April.

If the I-80 tolls had been approved, Pennsylvania would have had $922 million available in the fiscal year that starts July 1 for repairing roads and bridges and for operating transit systems. Without the I-80 tolls, the state will generate $450 million from higher tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

But Mr. Rendell said that "doing nothing" is not an option, meaning that the Legislature must find ways to generate at least $472 million starting July 1. Without the funding, hundreds of bridges won't be repaired, miles of cracked roadways won't be replaced and transit riders will face higher fares and service cuts, he warned.

The special session on transportation would be contemporaneous with the current session of the Legislature, which already is complicated by serious disagreements over Mr. Rendell's proposed $29 billion budget for fiscal 2010-11. Leaders gavel the regular session to a close each day and then immediately gavel the special session to a start.

Mr. Rendell had these suggestions for raising the $472 million to replace the I-80 tolls:

• Impose a tax on the gross profits that oil companies make in Pennsylvania, an idea he proposed in 2006 only to see the Legislature reject it. Legislators instead passed Act 44 of 2007, which included higher turnpike tolls and the I-80 tolls.

• The "3P" idea, or public-private partnerships, specifically leasing at least part of the turnpike to a private operator, who would collect the tolls and maintain the road. Mr. Rendell also proposed that idea in 2007 but the Legislature refused.

• Some sort of higher fees or taxes; Mr. Rendell said a higher gasoline tax might be considered, but that could prove difficult with legislators up for re-election. Higher fees for vehicle registrations and renewing drivers licenses are another option.

• Use money from the state capital budget for some road or bridge repairs.

Unless replacement funds are found, the state will have just $450 million available for transportation repairs in 2010-11, which starts July 1. Of that, $250 million will go to transit agencies and $200 million for roads and bridges, which is far less than what is needed, Mr. Rendell said.

SEPTA, the transit agency in Philadelphia and its suburbs, will lose $110 million because of the lack of I-80 tolls, he said. The Port Authority of Allegheny County will lose $26 million in fiscal 2010-11 unless some alternative financing method is developed.

Port Authority spokeswoman Judi McNeil said her agency already faced a $25 million budget deficit in 2010-11 -- and without additional funding, the red ink will reach $50 million. That could mean cutting some routes or increasing fares but she said it's too early for such speculation.

One of the leading opponents of the I-80 tolls, U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Centre, praised the Federal Highway Administration decision, saying it will prevent a "tremendous economic burden on Pennsylvania."

Mr. Thompson said he had been confident that the law was on his side, but was concerned that politics could result in a decision to allow the tolling.

Mr. Thompson joined with the other U.S. House members who represent areas along the highway -- Democrats Kathy Dahlkemper of Erie, Paul Kanjorski of Luzerne and Chris Carney of Scranton -- in opposing tolling because it might stifle economic development in the corridor that stretches from Ohio to New Jersey.

Ms. Dahlkemper said I-80 tolls were "a Band-Aid" for the state's transportation problems and legislators need to take a deeper look at the whole situation.

Lt. Gov. Joe Scarnati, also a state senator whose Jefferson County district includes part of I-80, also praised the federal decision, saying the "economic disadvantages of the tolls would clearly outweigh the benefit" of higher revenue for the state. But he noted it still leaves state officials with the job of finding new ways to generate revenue "to rectify the current transportation funding crisis across the state."

Truckers also were pleased by the rejection of the tolls.

"It will save a considerable amount of money and movement of freight, so now carriers can continue using the road," said Jim Runk, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association. "The companies working along I-80 are thrilled that they aren't going to have to (build) tolls into the cost of their products."

Many residents feared that trucks might divert from a tolled I-80 onto local roads, causing traffic jams and road damage.

Tuesday was actually the third time federal officials had rejected the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission's bid to place tolls on I-80.

Mr. Thompson said, "Now we need to begin to build Plan B and C and D to look at how we address the transportation needs without devastating the economic opportunities that are out there."

State Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said Act 44 of 2007 was, in fact, Plan B. He said that Plan A was a 2006 PennDOT study that recommended generating $1.7 billion a year, by increasing the 31-cent-a-gallon state gasoline tax by at least another 12 cents per gallon and increasing vehicle fees. Legislators balked at that, so Act 44 was adopted as a substitute.

Mr. Markosek said legislators now must "sit down, put politics aside and come up with a reasonable and workable solution to our transportation needs, even though it may be painful."

Rep. David Levdansky, D-Forward, said there should be a Plan C -- "C standing for cuts" in road and bridge repair projects. He suggested that PennDOT eliminate projects planned for northern Pennsylvania -- because, he said, drivers on the turnpike, in the southern area of the state, are already paying higher tolls.


Tom Barnes: tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254. Daniel Malloy: dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 202-445-9980.


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