Policy Brief: Turnpike Renewing Plans to Toll I-80

Member Group : Allegheny Institute

Policy Brief
An electronic publication of
The Allegheny Institute for Public Policy

May 29, 2009 Volume 9, Number 32

Turnpike Renewing Plans to Toll I-80

The Turnpike Commission’s plan to toll Interstate 80 to help fund the state’s transportation needs appears to be revving up again. Recently, a Turnpike Commission official told a state House committee "The state’s tolling application today remains viable" with Federal officials. However, a September 2008 letter from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), rather curtly and pointedly dismissed the Commission’s revised application. The letter noted the state’s proposal fell far short of meeting several Federal guidelines laid out by the Interstates System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program (ISRRPP), the program the state applied to for permission to toll I-80.

The Turnpike’s plan to raise money for road and bridge repair and to subsidize mass transit ran directly afoul of ISRRPP regulations that require toll revenues to be used to rehabilitate or reconstruct the highway being tolled. Furthermore the FHWA letter was very critical of the fact that the proposal contained inadequate analyses of revenue projections and impacts on economics and transportation along the I-80 corridor.

There was no mention in the Turnpike statement as to whether the Commission has addressed the FHWA’s concerns expressed in the 2008 denial letter.

Tolling I-80 was to be a cornerstone of Act 44—the Transportation Funding Act of 2007—in which bonds issued against the tolls would account for more than half of about $950 million per year to fund Pennsylvania’s transportation needs. The remaining share was issued against increases in tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Why Turnpike Commission officials still deem the application viable for resubmission remains a question. Unless they address the concerns of the FHWA in its rejection letter, the application will be turned down again. If they are hoping a new administration will simply wave it through, they may be in for a shock. The ISRRPP is part of larger Federal legislation known as the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). Since the Turnpike’s tolling proposal doesn’t meet the constraints set forth in this legislation, either the proposal or legislation will have to be changed.

State officials are scheduled to meet with FHWA officials soon to discuss the issue. It is not clear what will be discussed since the denial letter was very clear—the proposal as it is cannot be approved. And it is hard to see how the proposal can be amended to satisfy ISRRPP requirements and still raise the hundreds of millions of dollars needed each year for the road and bridge work envisioned in Act 44.

Perhaps the state officials will ask FHWA to suggest that Congress revise ISRRPP to allow tolling revenue to be used for broader purposes than current law permits. Unfortunately for I-80 toll advocates, the prospect of Congress making such changes any time soon would seem a very remote possibility.

So what has the Commission been doing in the months since the denial letter was received? According to one official, they have been waiting on the new Administration to get settled in and are taking this "opportunity to develop a more unified political consensus here in Pennsylvania regarding potential resubmission." What consensus are they looking for? The tolling plan as previously submitted will be rejected on the same grounds as before. Consensus building, unless it is successful at changing the law and the guidelines, will be for naught.

Are they hoping the new Administration will be more sympathetic to their cause? The Administration may not be willing to expend political capital on the tolling I-80 in Pennsylvania for the purposes of subsidizing mass transit and local road and bridge repair. The ramifications would be enormous. Working for changes that would allow Pennsylvania to toll I-80 would undoubtedly open the floodgates for applications from all over the country seeking approval to toll interstates. Congress and the Administration will surely not be willing or eager to unleash that chaos, especially in the current economic environment.
Frank Gamrat, Ph.D., Sr. Research Assoc. Jake Haulk, Ph.D., President
Note: Taxpayer Protest in Harrisburg. Please join State Representative Daryl Metcalfe and other fellow Pennsylvania taxpayers as they hold a peaceful protest on June 9th beginning at 9:00 am at the State Capitol Building. For more information please contact Representative Metcalfe at 724.772.3110 or visit his website at repmetcalfe.com.
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