Pennsylvania’s plans to toll I-80 turned down

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The Federal Highway Administration announced Thursday, Sept. 11, that it did not approve an application from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to place tolls on Interstate 80. FHWA said the planned use of toll revenues did not meet federal requirements, as there is no basis to conclude that the proposed lease payments are legitimate operating costs.

“Tolling interstates is a viable option for many states to fund highway improvements or to improve performance conditions,” said Tom Madison, FHWA administrator. “Because we are legally bound to ensure applications for this program meet all congressionally mandated requirements, however, we are regrettably unable to approve this application.”

The revised application seeking tolling authority under the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program was submitted to FHWA on July 22. Under the proposal, PennDOT would transfer I-80 to the Turnpike Commission and make payments.

FHWA said the Commonwealth’s application did not meet legal requirements for the correct use of toll revenue. Specifically, the application called for the Turnpike Commission to use toll revenue to pay annual lease payments to PennDOT. FHWA noted that while under the program toll revenue can be used for lease payments, the amount of the payment is required to be based on an objective market valuation.

The Commission’s application, however, included no information or data justifying the proposed amount for the annual toll payment or establishing that the level was based on an objective market valuation. FHWA noted that earlier this year it had asked for just such justification as it reviewed the tolling application. The Commission, however, sent no additional information supporting the lease payment level, FHWA said.

“There is simply no evidence that the lease payments are related to the actual costs of acquiring an interest in the facility,” Madison said. “Although we are unable to move the application forward, we stand ready to assist the Commonwealth in finding creative ways to address its transportation needs.”

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The Americans for a Strong National Highway Network – a coalition that represents highway users, including the American Trucking Associations and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association – applauded the decision. It had asked the Department of Transportation to reject the Pennsylvania plan, saying it was “inconsistent with the provisions and spirit” of the federal pilot program that authorizes tolls on interstate highways. Pennsylvania planned to use part of the toll revenue paid by the turnpike commission for projects throughout the commonwealth with the remainder going for I-80 maintenance and improvement and for toll collection expenses. Under the federal pilot program, toll revenue is designated for projects only on the tolled facility, the coalition said.

Had DOT failed to buy that argument, the coalition had others, including a claim that the commission’s plan to place toll facilities so as to exempt 70 percent of local residents from paying tolls opens the down to potential legal action under the Commerce Clause.