State's rural stretches carrying the banner against I-80 toll plan
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HARRISBURG -- Call it the rural revolt.
People like Michael Veslany, a retired PPG Industries employee in Meadville, Crawford County, and Ken Maleski, a utility company worker in Emlenton, Venango County, are lining up to try to defeat a plan adopted last week by state officials to turn Interstate 80 into a toll road.
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They're applauding two Republican congressmen from northwestern Pennsylvania, U.S. Reps. Phil English and John Peterson, for putting a clause in a federal transportation spending bill that would block efforts to establish tolls on the 311-mile interstate that crosses northern Pennsylvania from New Jersey to Ohio.
Gov. Ed Rendell has asked congressional Democrats to get rid of that clause, but that's not likely to happen before late September.
"It's a fairness issue," Mr. Maleski in a phone interview yesterday. "We shouldn't have to pay tolls so people in the southwest and southeast don't have to pay as much for their mass transit. Those tolls would be a death knell for economic growth in our area."
Adding tolls to I-80 is a key part of a new financing plan, House Bill 1590, which is meant to generate $950 million each year for 10 years for transportation improvements. About $500 million of that would go for repairing hundreds of miles of deteriorating highways and several thousand ailing bridges throughout the state, with $450 million going to bail out deficit-ridden mass transit agencies in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and smaller towns.
Mr. Veslany, who grew up in Munhall but has lived in Meadville for 35 years, said he and his wife drive on I-80 often because they have children in Ohio, Eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He believes "there are other things [state officials] could do" to raise transportation improvement funds.
He added, "I feel sorry for that new guy who took over the Port Authority," referring to Executive Director Steve Bland, "but there's been a lot of faux pas there over the years. I-80 shouldn't be tolled to take care of the Port Authority's financial problems. I agree with English and Peterson."
While tolling I-80 has been discussed occasionally in recent years, the plan to seek federal approval for the tolls only gelled early this month, as legislators looked for ways to pay for fixing roads, bridges and transit.
Last November, a transportation study panel suggested hiking the state's 31-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax by 12 cents and increasing fees for driver's licenses and car registrations. But that was quickly dismissed, with legislators fearing voter outrage with gas already selling for about $3 a gallon.
Mr. Rendell came up with an alternative -- leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private operator and putting a new tax on oil company profits -- but legislators didn't like those options either. In June, Mr. Rendell reluctantly dropped the turnpike leasing idea, but has now revived it, because of the possibility that Congress will deny the tolling of I-80.
House Bill 1590 would combine the proposed tolls on I-80 with revenue from a 25 percent increase in turnpike tolls in 2009 to pay off the $950 million a year in bonds that would be sold to raise transportation funding.
The turnpike tolls are still due to increase in 2009, but efforts to add tolls on I-80 are now in question. Congress and the Federal Highway Administration would have to agree to the I-80 tolls.
Mr. Peterson said phones in his offices have been constantly "buzzing" since the Legislature adopted the plan to toll I-80. This week six township supervisors from his district, which covers much of the northern half of the state and is bisected by I-80, sang a chorus of opposition.
"Pennsylvania, especially west of Harrisburg, keeps losing people," Mr. Peterson said. "We should be able to get out of this dive we're in. Would a company look at the state if it had two east-west toll roads? No."
He said the fight over tolling I-80 "is about rural America and the rest of Pennsylvania having to fund a city, Philadelphia."
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, or SEPTA, takes a lot of heat from legislators who live in the rural and central parts of the state. SEPTA and the Port Authority of Allegheny County insist they have made major improvements in efficiency in recent years, but many legislators still consider the agencies overstaffed, with overly generous salaries and pensions.
Opposition to tolling I-80 extends far beyond northwestern Pennsylvania. About 200 miles to the east, in Bloomsburg, Columbia County, state Rep. David Millard and chamber of commerce President Ed Edwards are doing what they can to fight it.
"If the objective is to raise more funds for mass transit, the state should toll Interstate 95," a busy highway in the Philadelphia area, said Mr. Millard. Tolling Interstate 70 or Interstate 79 in the Pittsburgh area is another idea, he said, adding, "It's not fair for us in Columbia County to pay for urban mass transit."
Mr. Edwards said I-80 tolls "will have a significant impact on our major employers, who ship products into and out of our area. We see those tolls as a significant economic burden with no benefits."
He also fears that tolls on I-80 will cause many more drivers to use local roads, especially three-lane Route 11, "which will put more congestion on that highway."
Under House Bill 1590, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is tasked both with raising the tolls on the turnpike and implementing the new tolls on I-80. Turnpike commission spokesman Bill Capone said yesterday that the process of applying to the Federal Highway Administration for permission to toll I-80 is proceeding, despite the confusion caused by the Peterson-English amendment.
"There's no point in delaying the application," he said. Studies also must be done on traffic flow on I-80 to determine the best place to put the toll booths or newer-style toll "gantries," tall steel structures with arms that stretch across the roadway and register payments from cars equipped with E-ZPass.
The turnpike commission had been planning to go to the bond market in about a month to sell the first year's total of bonds.
"I'm not sure how the bond issue might be impacted" by congressional efforts to block the I-80 tolls, Mr. Capone said.
As for Port Authority officials, they're still counting on the $55 million in additional funds they would get this year from House Bill 1590, which passed the Legislature last week.
Port Authority spokesman Bob Grove didn't want to comment on the battle over I-80 tolls. The Port Authority already reduced routes and laid off workers in June and plans to raise fares in January.
"We're going forward based on [the aid contained in] House Bill 1590," and hoping further route cuts won't be needed, he said.
First Published July 26, 2007 11:31 pm