Leasing of Pennsylvania Turnpike back on table

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After the U.S. House approved an amendment to block federal funding of tolls on Pennsylvania’s Interstate 80, Gov. Edward Rendell said he would revive leasing the commonwealth’s turnpike instead.

“If this amendment becomes law, it will cut transportation funding statewide, and so we must immediately begin contingency planning,” Rendell said. “Accordingly, I have little choice but to restart the process to establish procedures for receiving bids for a long-term lease of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.”

The U.S. House passed the amendment to next year’s federal transportation funding bill, HR 3074, by voice vote Tuesday, July 24. The Senate will pass a separate bill, and the differences will be hammered out in conference committee for another vote expected this fall.

Two Republican congressmen from Pennsylvania, John Peterson and Phil English, sponsored the amendment, which prohibits using federal funds to apply for federal funding or to establish tolls. State officials already must receive federal approval to toll a U.S. interstate.

Peterson said I-80 tolls would go to urban mass transit, which he said already gets most of Pennsylvania’s transportation funding.

“We are not going to stand by while Harrisburg raids western Pennsylvania travelers and picks truckers’ pockets to prop up Philadelphia’s mass transit system,” English said.

English quoted a 2005 study by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that recommended against tolling I-80 “based on the long timetable to realize benefits, the high costs of converting the road to toll, and the fact that a financial break-even point is decades away.”

On July 18, Rendell, a Democrat, signed into law a bill that would toll I-80 and increase state turnpike tolls. The governor earlier abandoned his controversial plan to lease the turnpike in hope of compromising with the Legislature on a new state budget. Rendell said such a lease could bring Pennsylvania $1.75 billion annually in transportation funding.