by Eric Epstein
In November 2006 Gov. Rendell’s Transportation Funding and Reform Commission released its final report, and concluded Pennsylvania would need an additional $1.7 billion per year - in perpetuity – to maintain the state’s current infrastructure and mass transit systems.
Mr. Rendell’s budget proposal in February 2007 sought to fill the transportation funding gap with an unconstitutional Oil Company Profits’ Tax, and the leasing of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to an Australian or Spanish conglomerate. Both initiatives were derailed.
With the passage of Act 44 of 2007, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (“ PTC”) expanded it’s road monopoly by 58% (from 537 miles to 848 miles) by placing Interstate-80 (“I-80”) under the Commission’s control. Act 44 also fostered a dependency between Pennsylvania’s transportation arteries and the Turnpike Commission in as much as the PTC was authorized to incur billions of dollars in bonded debt to subsidize 39,530 miles of roadways under PennDOT’s jurisdiction.
Much of the funding for Act 44 is predicated on assessing tolls on I-80, yet the Pennsylvania General Assembly has no authority to authorize tolling of a federal highway. Any tolling scheme must be approved by the Federal Highway Administration (“FHA”).
However, the Federal Highway Administration rejected Pennsylvania’s plan to impose tolls on Interstate 80 on September 11, 2008 based in part on questions about whether the amount of money that would be paid by the Turnpike Commission to PennDOT was an “objective market valuation” of the highway.
FHA official King W. Gee said there were also other “weaknesses” in the application, including a lack of sufficient traffic studies. According to former-U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, the application to implement tolls along the I-80 corridor was denied because it did not meet technical and statutory requirements.
If I-80 tolling continues to be rejected, Act 44 will generate only $450 million annually, less than one-fourth the identified need of $1.7 billion.
Even if the FHA permits tolling on I-80, revenue generation under Act 44 requires a 25% rate increase on tolls on the existing Turnpike as well as annual increases of 3%. As the details of Act 44 emerged, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review noted that the legislation contains no restrictions on how high the PTC can raise tolls on either the Turnpike or I-80.
Rural residents, businesses, and truckers along the I-80 corridor are in large part opposed to tolling I-80 due to the localized economic hardship the assessments would create.
For example, on August 14, 2007, Norman S. Rich, President and CEO of Weiss Markets, noted that all of their 126 stores in Pennsylvania are supplied from a distribution center in Milton, just 10 miles from route 80. And 57 Weiss stores are supplied via I-80, six days a week or the equivalent of 20,000 trips a year on the road. “If the I-80 toll proposal matches the Pennsylvania Turnpike rates, a round-trip truck run from Milton to Stroudsburg would cost $62.” The cost of the haul has actually jumped after the Turnpike Commission increased tolls by 25% in 2009 followed by a 3% bump this year.
Who do you think is going to pay for the increased cost of groceries?
Rick Geist, (R), the former Chairman of the House Transportation Committee, pointed out Act 44’s slippery slope:
We have a massive transportation infrastructure problem in Pennsylvania that must be addressed. We’ve chosen to go $11 billion into debt and give unprecedented power to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. I see this as an irresponsible deviation from the pay-as-you-go philosophy that Pennsylvania has followed to pay for transportation.
Any antidote to the transportation funding crisis is going to be a difficult political pill to swallow. Among the solutions we will have to consider include: abolishing the Turnpike Commission and subsuming it into PennDOT; supplanting the Revenue Neutral Reconciliation taxing protocol with PURTA to reestablish mass transit funding; increasing pay-as-you-go at the gas pumps, and/or raising vehicle fees.
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