Pennsylvania moves closer to tolling I-80

user-gravatar Headshot

Pennsylvania turnpike and state transportation department officials said they have signed a 50-year lease agreement allowing tolls on Interstate 80.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the state turnpike commission also filed a formal application with the Federal Highway Administration Oct. 13 seeking federal authorization to toll and improve I-80. Commission spokesman Carl DeFebo said they expect to receive federal conditional approval before 2008 that would allow them to proceed with environmental and engineering studies. The commission hopes to collect the first tolls in 2011.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said that the organizations are rushing to sign a contract the public didn’t first see. “At the very least, it’s blatantly unethical on their part,” said Todd Spencer, OOIDA executive vice president. “And it may be totally illegal.” Signing this lease would violate the FHWA’s General Pilot Program Provisions, the association stated.

Tolling I-80 is the result of Act 44, a comprehensive transportation funding plan signed into law in July. I-80 tolls first would pay for maintenance and reconstruction on the interstate, and remaining toll revenues will help improve roads and bridges. Under Act 44, the commission will transfer $83.3 billion to PennDOT for transportation projects. The act enables a 25 percent toll increase in 2009 on the mainline turnpike and a 2 to 3 percent increase on that turnpike in 2010.

State officials boast that Act 44 provides for the first time transportation funding that keeps pace with inflation and covers the entire transportation network. Tolls on the 311-mile interstate will mirror existing turnpike per-mile rates. If tolls start in 2011, it would cost a car $25 to drive across the state, while an average tractor-trailer truck would pay a $100 for the trip; E-ZPass users will pay less.

The commission has said it will generate an additional $33 billion over the next 50 years for I-80 improvements and other transportation projects, bringing the total investment to $116 billion. Officials plan $2 billion in I-80 in improvements, such as lengthening on- and off-ramps at interchanges, building truck-climbing lanes and raising some low-clearance bridges that now force trucks off the highway.

U.S. Rep. Phil English said he reviewed the commission’s expression of interest in tolling I-80 that was submitted to the FHWA. The Republican congressman wrote the U.S. DOT, urging it to reject the application due to what he called “failures and inconsistencies” within the expression of interest.

A bill introduced Sept. 7 by U.S. Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.) would prohibit tolls on federal highways and on any highways bought back from the federal government by states. Peterson says HR 3510, which was referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, was part of his opposition to his state’s plan to toll I-80.

Peterson’s bill is the House companion to S 2019, introduced by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). The Texas Department of Transportation wants a change in federal law to allow state buybacks of federal highways for the purpose of tolling.

Meanwhile, another bill introduced in the House would force states to repay the Highway Trust Fund for costs associated with building and maintaining interstates if the state adds tolls to the highways.

“The American people should not be required to pay for the same highway twice – once through their tax dollars and again through new tolls on federal interstate highways,” says U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), who proposed HR 3802.

U.S. Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and Lee Terry (R-Neb.) co-sponsored the bill, which also was referred to the House transportation committee.