Battle Heats Up Over Pennsylvania Tolling, With National Implications

For more than two years, Pennsylvania transportation planners have sought federal permission to make I-80 one of only three interstates in America approved for tolling.

i_80jpg_8941768de5cc707d.jpgPennsylvania's I-80 would be only the third existing interstate in the U.S. to have tolls. (Photo: PennLive.com)
If the Federal Highway Administration okays tolls on I-80 -- and local reports suggest an announcement is imminent -- the entrenched resistance to tolling the Eisenhower-era highway system could finally ease, allowing states to raise sorely needed transport funding through user fees.

So it's no wonder that members of Congress, particularly House members in vulnerable districts, are ramping up their attacks on the toll application. Political disapproval of tolling I-80 is a bipartisan affair, with Reps. Paul Kanjorski (D-PA) and Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA) joining Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA) to lobby the U.S. DOT against the state's bid.

As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported today:

Foes of the tolling say it would stymie economic development along the interstate's exits -- as drivers on toll roads won't get off and back on.

"[If] we put tolls on Interstate 80 we might as well just put signs on either end, in Ohio and New Jersey, detouring prosperity around Pennsylvania -- and that's wrong," said U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Centre, who was joined by U.S. House colleagues Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Erie, and Paul Kanjorski, D-Luzerne County, as well as 14 members of the General Assembly who traveled from Harrisburg for the day.

Under Act 44, passed in 2007 to try to solve Pennsylvania's transportation shortfall, the state plans to toll I-80 to raise money for highways, bridges and public transit. The Turnpike Commission is scheduled to pay PennDOT $900 million by July. If tolling is implemented, that figure will increase by 2.5 percent per year thereafter. If not, it will plummet to $450 million.

Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA), mounting a primary challenge from the left to Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA), has walked a finer line on the nationally relevant issue by proposing new taxes on oil companies instead of I-80 tolls. Specter, meanwhile, helped remove language blocking I-80 tolls from a 2007 transportation spending bill, joining the pro-tolls camp in the eyes of many voters.

Virginia's I-81 and Missouri's I-70 are the other two interstates that have gotten federal clearance to add tolls, although Missouri's application was "provisionally" accepted and the state has made little tangible progress on toll addition.