New plan to toll roads proposed

State representatives suggest tolling interstates to generate portion of $472 million needed for transportation

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HARRISBURG -- It didn't take three legislators too long to answer Gov. Ed Rendell's call for ideas on how to generate some of the $472 million a year the state needs to improve roads, bridges and transit.

Democratic Reps. Bill Kortz of Dravosburg, Michael O'Brien of Philadelphia and Scott Conklin of Centre County suggested Wednesday that the state Department of Transportation place tolls -- $1 for passenger vehicles and $5 for trucks -- on several interstate highways, at the border locations where the roads enter and exit Pennsylvania.

The lawmakers contend their "gateway tolling" idea would generate a lot of money from out-of-state motorists and truckers, thus relieving the road-repair burden on state residents. They said a "conservative" estimate is that the new tolls would produce $235 million to $300 million a year, or more than half what is needed.

The proposal does, however, face at least two major hurdles: passage by the special session of the Legislature on transportation and an OK from the Federal Highway Administration.

"Any federal-aid highway must get some sort of federal authority before proceeding with tolling," said federal spokeswoman Nancy Singer. Mr. Conklin said he would be glad to make the appeal to the feds.

The legislators said their idea is better than raising the gasoline tax or other ideas suggested so far to fill the funding gap left when federal officials refused to allow the state to place 11 toll locations across the 311-mile length of I-80.

They have introduced Special Session House Bill 2, which they call "Gateway Tolling for Transportation Independence Today."

It was Federal Highway Administration's refusal to let the state put toll gantries along I-80 that caused the need for the special session to find alternatives to pay for road, bridge and transit improvements.

If approved, toll gantries would be placed where I-79 enters the state from West Virginia and where I-78 and I-84 enter Eastern Pennsylvania, as well as at the entry and exit points on I-90 near Erie, I-80 across the northern part of the state, I-81 in Central Pennsylvania, I-95 in the Philadelphia area.

All the money raised by these entry/exit tolls would be used for upkeep of the highway they're on, Mr. Conklin said. He contends that would solve the problem that federal officials had with the now-rejected toll proposal on I-80, because some of that revenue would have gone for improving other roads.

Mr. Rendell has said he would consider new tolling as a revenue-raising option, said spokesman Gary Tuma.

But because the tolls would need a federal OK, he was concerned that "the approval process could take several years," meaning "it may not provide immediate new funding."

Mr. Conklin said the proposed interstate tolls are "user fees" and would be paid by drivers who drive on -- and cause wear and tear to -- those roads. He thought it was fair for these motorists to pay what he considered modest tolls.

The interstates in Pennsylvania "are a regional asset," Mr. O'Brien said. "They serve the mid-Atlantic, New England and Midwestern states, and all of their commerce. We are simply proposing they share the burden of the upkeep" for the roads.

For Pennsylvanians who live near a state border and work in, or travel frequently to, a bordering state, a book of toll tickets could be bought at a reduced price, similar to the cut-price tickets now available for people who frequently cross bridges from Philadelphia to New Jersey, Mr. O'Brien said. And trucks owned by companies based in Pennsylvania wouldn't have to pay the tolls.

The toll booths would have human toll collectors who would work for PennDOT, not the Turnpike Commission. There could also have metal "baskets" that drivers could drop cash or coins into.

The toll gantries could handle cars with E-ZPass, and may also be equipped with video cameras to take pictures of vehicles' license plates as they go through, and a bill would be sent to the motorist's home.


Bureau Chief Tom Barnes: tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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