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.

  • Clutch J

    Perhpas there’s an analogy here to the Shoup-style on-street parking pricing reforms.

    Shoup says such schemes work best when, ala Pasadena, funds received via the additional parking fees are dedicated to improvements in the area where the fees are generated. Streets and sidewalks are cleaned, new street furniture is added, lighting is added, security is provided, etc.

    Maybe a portion of tolls received in PA can be used to “beautify” areas around exits, thus making exiting more attractive and partially alleviating concerns from businesses.

  • Mudge

    The use of EZ-Pass has removed most of the logistical disadvantages of toll roads. I-80 is a horrible road, I believe truckers rate it among the worst in the US..largely due to them, of course. I see no reason why economic development would by-pass PA just to use the Ohio Turnpike (I-80) or the New Jersey Turnpike. Seems to me that Harrisburg to Philadelphia has lots of development along the inferior PA Turnpike (no median).

    If tolls will allow improved maintenance of I-80, not all that bad a deal.

  • Mike

    What is with this notion that there are only three interstates that are toll roads? I used to drive from Pittsburgh to Chicago regularly, and the entire trip is made up of toll roads in PA, Ohio and Indiana. And once you get to Chicago, it seems every interstate in Illinois is a toll road.

  • Judas Peckerwood

    In my experience, states with toll roads have the worst-maintained highways. I lived many years in both NJ and FL, two of the most tolled states, and the roads were awful. Now I live in in Washington State, where they are virtually unknown (our state constitution prohibits tolls on a road once its initial construction costs are covered), and the highways are excellent.

  • Mike:

    Many toll road interstates were toll roads before they were interstates. The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940 but didn’t become I-76 until many years later. (At Valley Forge, I-76 departs the Turnpike system; the short stretch of Turnpike between Valley Forge and New Jersey is I-276.) I believe the number of roads that started out as interstates (freeways) and later became toll roads is, as this post asserts, essentially correct.

  • Mike Silva

    Sweet, so instead of paying a few shillings of gas tax, hey, let’s engineer toll congestion!

  • Judas @#4:

    I’m guessing the most significant reason the Jersey Turnpike is in worse condition than I-5 in Washington State has a lot more to do with traffic volume than anything else.
    I too have lived in the Pacific Northwest (Portland) and I am now living again in Philadelphia.
    The population density is considerably higher here in the East and the level of truck/car traffic much higher as a result.

    The tolls don’t bother me much, even when I did commute on the PA turnpike for about $4 a day (I now happily work from home). It’s just a usage fee.

  • This reinforces the myth that roads cost nothing and therefore we need not pay to use them.

  • John

    The tollong legislation is to help repair the existing roads. The initial proposal for the tolling of I-80 was that 90% of the revenues were to fund public transportation for the cities and other state projects. Currently funds from fees and gasoline taxes approximately $130 million from truck and auto usage cover the $80 million maintenance costs of 80.

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