Ding! Ding! Here Comes the Toll Machine

Posted by By at 16 March, at 22 : 56 PM Print

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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