Funding crisis hits Pennsylvania via I-80 toll rejection

April 9, 2010
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is considering all options to close a $450-million transportation shortfall following the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) rejection of the state’s plans to toll Interstate 80. What those options are, however, remains to be seen

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is considering all options to close a $450-million transportation shortfall following the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) rejection of the state’s plans to toll Interstate 80. What those options are, however, remains to be seen.

“There’s no question there is a drop in funding,” James Runk, Pennsylvania Motor Truck Assn. (PMTA) president & CEO, told Fleet Owner. “In my opinion, they should not have passed an act without seeing whether they could get the money.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation rejected Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell’s plan to toll I-80 to raise funds for transportation projects in the state. The rejection is the third time DOT has nixed the plan. Rendell immediately responded by calling a special legislative session (the date has not been set) to look for ways to cover the shortfall that will occur without the toll revenue.

“We have to deal with the fallout of this decision; there is no way that we can just do nothing,” Rendell (D) said. “I’m going to call a special session of the legislature to address our transportation challenges. We’ll look at every option on the table. This is a dire situation with significant consequences.”

Rendell and the state legislature passed a law in 2007, called Act 44, which authorized the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) to “lease” I-80 from PennDOT, paying annual payments under the expectation that the road would be converted to a toll road. The proposal was first rejected by FHWA in September 2008.

The problem that remains after the denial is how the state, which was counting on using the revenue the tolls would have produced - perhaps up to $600 million according to Runk – will fund transportation-related projects and repairs in the state.

“We do have a lot of deficient bridges,” Runk said. “I would say the situation is serious. We need those bridges; they can’t just take them out. The money has to be made up.”

Among the options available to legislators that Runk has heard talked about are fuel taxes, registration surcharges and user fees among others. Many of those suggestions have been brought forward before, although many politicians consider them to be a path they don’t want to venture down.

“We have said for two years that tolling is not a good political way to move on this,” Runk added. “That has fallen on deaf ears because nobody wants to raise taxes, especially in a year when they are running for re-election.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn. (OOIDA) also applauded the decision.

“It shows that accountability and the responsible use of taxpayer resources wins the day and that diversion of those hard-earned dollars for unrelated uses is unacceptable,” said Mike Joyce, OOIDA’s director of legislative affairs.

The government rejected the request because it did not meet the criteria for the use of toll funds, according to numerous news reports. PennDOT and the PTC planned to use some of the funds to pay for other transportation projects around the state whereas the federal government requires tolls on Interstates to fund repair of the tolled road and only the tolled road.

NATSO, the national association representing truckstops and travel plazas, said autos would have paid $25 to travel on the road while commercial trucks would have been hit with a $100 fee to travel the Interstate. The result, it argued, would have been more truckers finding alternate routes on local roads.

“We’re pleased that DOT has moved away from the idea of tolling the Interstate as a means of generating revenue,” said Lisa Mullings, NATSO’s CEO. “Tolls divert traffic to secondary, less-safe roads as well as away from those businesses operating along the Interstate that are most equipped to handle highway traffic. This marks a major victory for highway-based businesses. We hope that other states will see that tolling existing Interstates is not a viable solution to revenue problems.”

Without I-80 toll revenues, funding for roads and bridges will be cut by about $300 million per year, according to a release from Rendell’s office. The release went on to say that about 100 bridges and 300 miles of road will not be repaired and funding for 73 public transit systems in the state will drop by $160 million per year, resulting in service cuts.

“[To] the people of Pennsylvania, understand there is no free ride,” Rendell said. “They know what happened in Minneapolis and New Orleans. People understand that if they want safe bridges, good roads, and potholes eliminated, you cannot wait for the pothole fairy to do it – you’ve got to pay for it.”

How Pennsylvania covers the shortfall will be the focus of the special session.

“All options are on the table,” said Pennsylvania House Transportation Chairman Joseph Markosek (D). “Anyone who thinks this will be easy or painless is wrong because we have an aging transportation infrastructure with vast needs. Those of us who are disappointed and those of us who are euphoric with today’s decision must quickly put their emotions aside and proceed arm-in-arm to find adequate and sustainable major funding sources.”

Markosek was the author of Act 44.

“Pennsylvania’s transportation system impacts every resident, business and visitor,” Markosek said. “The significant backlog of critical projects hinders the state’s economic competitiveness, threatens our safety and impacts our people, businesses and environment.”

OOIDA said Act 44 has been problematic since its inception, resulting in double taxation.

“As we have been saying for more than two years, the Pennsylvania legislation known as Act 44 was flawed from the beginning, forcing PennDOT and the Turnpike to apply [for toll approval] not just once, not just twice, but three times. Hopefully, they recognize they’ve struck out and should take a seat on the bench,” Joyce said.

According to Markosek, technology is but one problem leading to a drop in funding. The current method of collecting fees is another.

“We have to shift away from outdated methods of generating transportation revenue toward methods that are more predictable, equitable and in sync with inflation,” Markosek said.

For more on Pennsylvania transportation news, click here.

About the Author

Brian Straight | Managing Editor

Brian joined Fleet Owner in May 2008 after spending nearly 14 years as sports editor and then managing editor of several daily newspapers.  He and his staff  won more than two dozen major writing and editing awards. Responsible for editing, editorial production functions and deadlines.

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