FHWA poses questions for I-80 toll proponents

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The Federal Highway Administration returned Pennsylvania’s request to toll Interstate 80 with many questions. Toll opponents call this a major roadblock to the plan, but toll advocates say it’s routine.

On Dec. 12, the FHWA returned the joint application of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, saying it didn’t contain all information needed for the first phase of provisional acceptance.

The request was filed under the federal Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program, which allows three toll projects on existing interstates that meet certain criteria. Two of the three projects already have been approved, for I-81 in Virginia and I-70 in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

Tolling I-80 is key to Pennsylvania’s transportation funding plan, Act 44. This authorizes the Turnpike Commission to borrow up to $12 billion, with the assumption that the federal government will grant Pennsylvania the authority to toll I-80.

FHWA’s letter shows that state officials need to repeal Act 44 and return to the drawing board, says U.S. Rep. John E. Peterson, R-Pa., an opponent of the toll plan. “If the Turnpike Commission and PennDOT are complete and truthful in their response to the FHWA, there’s little chance of them securing tolling approval,” Peterson says.

State Rep. Rick Geist, Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, says the request validated his concerns. “It is crystal clear that this application lacks basic information that the federal government needs to render a decision on this issue,” says Geist, whose district includes Altoona.

When the application was submitted, a commission spokesman said conditional approval was expected in 2007 so that environmental and engineering studies could proceed. In October, PennDOT and the Turnpike Commission even signed a 50-year lease agreement for I-80.

Turnpike Chief Executive Joe Brimmeier downplayed the FHWA response, saying he was not surprised by it – that, indeed, he was pleased with it.

“We knew before we even got started that this is a lengthy process, and we are continuing to cooperate with the FHWA to provide all the data they need to make an informed decision,” Brimmeier says.

The FHWA response said the application had significant flaws, such as insufficiently describing the planned reconstruction and rehabilitation project. The agency asked for the project’s schedule and finance plan, as well as projected toll revenues and toll implementation schedule.

The agency also wanted more explanation of how the toll plan takes into account the interests of travelers. It also wanted evidence of consultations with metropolitan planning organizations.

In recent years, PennDOT has transferred federal interstate-maintenance funds to other programs and rescinded interstate-maintenance funds, the agency noted; moreover, the state currently maintains a large balance of unobligated interstate-maintenance funds, the agency said. FHWA wanted reasons for this, in light of the applicants’ claims that new maintenance money is needed.

The agency also said that while the lease agreement does not stipulate the amount of the Turnpike Commission’s annual lease payment to the state, newspapers have reported it as $400 million. The agency asked the state to provide the payment amounts and explain how the commission can maintain those and still meet the reconstruction and rehabilitation needs of I-80.

FHWA also asked how the Turnpike Commission could issue $610 million in I-80 bonds in 2009, as proposed, when the lease agreement caps its annual bond issuance at $600 million for the entire turnpike system.

While the application said I-80 toll revenue will be used only for I-80, the lease agreement said it would be used for the entire turnpike system, FHWA said, asking the applicants to reconcile the two statements.

Opposing the toll request are the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, the American Trucking Associations, the American Highway Users Alliance and NATSO, all of which signed a Dec. 12 letter asking the Department of Transportation and FHWA to deny the request.