Locals could go toll-free on I-80
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If the federal government approves converting Interstate 80 to a toll road, many local drivers could end up paying nothing at all because toll barriers, on average, would be spaced more than 30 miles apart and may be up to 50 miles apart.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike plans to install a state-of-the-art, high-speed toll collection system on I-80 if it becomes a toll road, and businesses would receive E-ZPass volume discounts.
The turnpike has been preparing a capital-improvement program that proposes spending a minimum of $250 million a year on the highway for the next 10 years, or about four times as much as the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation intends to spend.
Work is to include rehabilitating 13 bridges defined as "fracturalcritical" because their designs are similar to the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed and killed 13 people in August. The I-80 bridge over the Clarion River is among them.
Turnpike officials last week confirmed plans that have been under development for the past six months and will be incorporated in the state's response to the Federal Highway Administration. The FHWA raised 14 issues in December on a preliminary application seeking approval to convert I-80 to a toll road as a national demonstration project.
The information will be shared with 10 metropolitan and rural planning organizations along the 311-mile highway corridor, starting July 15 in Pittsburgh with the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission. Part of I-80 passes through a corner of Butler County, which is part of thatregional planning group.
The next session will be in Williamsport with SEDA-COG, which represents 11 counties in Central Pennsylvania, an area heavily opposed to tolling the 311-mile highway.
Turnpike officials are prepared to announce plans at that meeting to build a $115 million I-80/I-99 interchange and a nearby $40 million local highway interchange.
Following the meetings, a FHWA requirement, turnpike Chief Engineer Frank Kempf said he hopes federal officials will give "a thumbs up" to the amended application for the interstate conversion.
Converting I-80 to a toll road was a key part of Act 44 transportation-funding legislation passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Ed Rendell last summer. The other major component involves raising tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, starting with a 25 percent increase Jan. 1.
Combined, the two toll roads are expected to generate up to $116 billion over 50 years, with the bulk earmarked for PennDOT through the unique "public-public partnership" created by Act 44 to fund roads, bridges and transit. Billions more are to be spent to rehabilitate, maintain and operate I-80, an expense that no longer would be PennDOT's responsibility.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has already turned over $750 million to PennDOT for the 2007-08 fiscal year and will make the first payment next month toward an $850 million obligation for the 2008-09 fiscal year.
Other developments related to the turnpike's work on the I-80 conversion project include:
• An amended "phase 1" application likely will be submitted by Labor Day to the FHWA, seeking provisional approval for creating a toll road. Meanwhile, in September, the Legislature is to consider Mr. Rendell's proposal to lease the turnpike for 75 years to a consortium led by Spain-based Abertis and New York City-based Citi Infrastructure Investors as an alternative to tolling I-80.
• The Turnpike Commission has authorized increasing an I-80 consulting contract with the engineering firm McCormick Taylor Inc. from the current $8 million to no more than $18 million.;
• Engineers have identified 15 "weak link" bridges on I-80 that require attention soon or their 40-ton weight limits may have to be lowered. These are in addition to the 13 "fractural critical" bridges and 16 that PennDOT already has classified as structurally deficient.
• The exact location of 10 toll barriers will be fixed after meetings with the various planning organizations. At some locations on I-80, trucks make up 40 percent of traffic.
Barry Schoch, the turnpike's I-80 project manager, said work is still on schedule for the toll road agency to assume ownership of the interstate and begin collecting tolls in 2010, a schedule that's largely dependent on how fast the federal government acts on the state's two-stage application andif it gives final approval.
Mr. Kempf said establishing toll barriers could be achieved fairly quickly using all-electronic tolling because the turnpike wouldn't need to build large plazas like those on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
"Basically, they're a 'cookie cutter' type of design with some truss work and gantries extending over the highway," he said. "There are no lanes where vehicles have to slow down or stop."
For vehicles not enrolled in an E-ZPass program, which now covers most toll facilities in the Northeast United States, the system will be equipped to digitally record license plate numbers, trace ownership through computer systems and mail bills to vehicle owners.
First Published June 15, 2008 12:00 am