State bid to toll I-80 is in the slow lane

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Pennsylvania Turnpike Chief Executive Officer Joe Brimmeier said it's impossible to complete a preliminary federal application for tolling Interstate 80 by Friday as Gov. Ed Rendell has requested.

He said the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the commission's partner under a 2007 bill providing funds for roads, bridges and transit, spent six weeks reviewing the first draft of information requested by the Federal Highway Administration and failed to return the document until Monday.

"Our lawyers, our financial people, our engineers, they all have to respond to [PennDOT's] questions and comments," Mr. Brimmeier said. "There's no way we can get that done by Friday."

Converting I-80 to a toll road is a key provision of the Act 44 legislation that includes increasing Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls by 25 percent starting Jan. 1. A decision by the FHWA weighs heavily on how state legislators handle another proposal -- leasing the turnpike to a Spanish firm for 75 years for a one-time payment of $12.8 billion.

If the FHWA rejects the state's application to toll I-80, about half of the revenue that legislators expected from Act 44 would not materialize and they might look more favorably on a long-term lease, which is expected to yield $1.1 billion a year in new transportation money.

Mr. Rendell announced Monday that a consortium of Barcelona, Spain-based Abertis and New York City-based Citi Infrastructure Investors submitted a high bid of $12.8 billion to lease the turnpike. If lawmakers agree, they would have to amend Act 44 to exclude tolling I-80 and the FHWA application would become moot.

Mr. Rendell said he hoped the turnpike commission would file a completed application by Friday so he could call U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters next week, asking for an expedited decision.

The Abertis/Citi bid is binding until June 20, but Mr. Rendell and the partnership indicated they would extend the deadline for an unspecified period while the Legislature considers it. Once a contract is signed, Abertis/Citi would take over the turnpike within 90 days.

Mr. Brimmeier said while PennDOT was reviewing the first draft, the turnpike added to the FHWA application seeking designation as the third pilot program in the nation to convert an interstate highway into a toll road. Now PennDOT will have to review the second draft, too, before the paperwork can be sent to Washington, D.C.

"If we do this hastily, without the details requested of us, the application is doomed to failure," he said.

In December, the FHWA informed the turnpike and PennDOT that their joint application did not contain all information required to consider conversion of I-80 to a toll road.

The FHWA provided a list of 14 items to be answered in detail, including an engineering analysis of the 311-mile highway and bridges; a schedule and financial plan for reconstruction and rehabilitation; projected tolls; how toll revenue will be spent; local traffic and community impacts; and why PennDOT needs money to repair I-80 when it's holding $310 million in unspent interstate maintenance funds.

Joe Grata can be reached at .


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