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Repeal Act 44 again

November 3, 2007
The Altoona Mirror

By John E. Peterson

The tolling of I-80 will not only have a devastating economic affect on the 17 counties I represent, but will harm Pennsylvania as a whole.

Under Governor Rendell and the state senate leadership's ill-conceived plan, the round trip toll on I-80 will start at $51 for a car and $308 for an average truck and grow to $66 and $400, respectively; the highest rates in the country. Without doubt, these rates will drive commerce further away from Pennsylvania, as we already have the highest diesel tax and second highest gasoline tax in the country.

Comparatively, it costs a mere 11 cents per mile for a truck to travel the Indian turnpike, and only 12 cents per mile on Ohio's. Under Act 44, though, it will cost a trucker - in addition to their apportionment fees - an astounding 49 cents per mile to travel the Pennsylvania Turnpike or I-80.

Those who formulated this scheme, unfortunately, never asked the important question: Will tolling I-80 help or hurt our state's economy? In fact, there were no hearings, public comments, or any type of citizen input sought before this law was enacted. A single diversion study wasn't even conducted.

The Governor and legislature even ignored their own 2005 PennDOT study, which advised against tolling I-80. They also ignored a 2006 report of the Transportation Funding and Reform Commission - commissioned by the Governor and legislature - which stated that “no additional funding should be provided for highways, bridges and transit” unless there is a reform of funding structure and business practices. The Commission never even considered tolling I-80.

Had Governor Rendell been wisely managing transportation funds and not ‘flexed' $412 million away from roads and bridges to mismanaged, mass transit systems in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, we might not be in a major transportation funding shortfall. Harrisburg has even allowed the Weights and Measures agency, welcome centers and 70 percent of the State Police's budget to come out of the highway fund rather than the general fund, as most states do.

Budget manipulations like these and others are what have placed the funding solvency for our highways and bridges in jeopardy, not a lack of federal money. If fact, at a May House Transportation hearing, Governor Rendell told the panel that the federal government has been “very good to Pennsylvania,” in terms of transportation funding.

If Harrisburg would get its fiscal house in order, and end the raid on the highway fund for non-highway items, we wouldn't be in dire financial shape.

The Governor may have had it right when he wanted to lease the Turnpike, which would generate an estimated $1.6 billion annually, versus the $25 billion repayment of bonds and interest by Pennsylvania taxpayers under the I-80 toll plan. And, it would do away with the state's most politically polluted, scandal ridden agency - the Turnpike Commission.

The Governor - prodded by his Turnpike Commission associates and their fat-cat lobbyists - and the state legislature leadership chose a less daunting target, though, far away from the power and patronage brokers in Philadelphia and Harrisburg. Worse yet, the Turnpike Commission was designated to manage the tolling of I-80, essentially doubling the size and scope of the state's most bloated political patronage farm.

But before a single political operative-turned toll collector is assigned to I-80, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) must approve the state's application. As tolling I-80 is the linchpin to the Act 44 bail-out-mass-transit law, this is a classic case of putting the cart ahead of the horse.

Pennsylvania is applying for the final slot in a three-state pilot program, intended for states that do not have any other revenue means to reconstruct their federal interstate. Importantly, if a state is approved for tolling, every dollar generated on that interstate must be used on that road. Surely not in need of reconstruction, Pennsylvania's I-80 is in the best shape it's been in for decades, as noted in the 2005 PennDOT study. Further, the two other states that have applied to this program - Virginia and Missouri - submitted their applications nearly a decade ago, and still have not received approval.

Tolling of I-80 has little to do with solving Pennsylvania's transportation and infrastructure problems. It has a lot to do with paying off debt and fixing problems that should have been addressed years ago. Until the Governor and our Harrisburg leaders find the political will to take on the likes the Turnpike Commission, and start managing our transportation system properly, they will be tolling every highway in the state. The result? Pennsylvania's best jobs and any hope of attracting new businesses, manufacturers and distribution centers to the Keystone State will disappear.

Congressman Peterson represents Pennsylvania's fifth congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Mr. Peterson served in the state legislature from 1977 to 1996.

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