Pa. strikes out on I-80 toll plan
The Federal Highway Administration on Tuesday rejected Pennsylvania's application to place tolls on Interstate 80 because the proposal did not meet federal requirements that toll revenues be used exclusively for the facility being tolled.
The state, led by Gov. Ed Rendell, planned to use toll money to fund transportation repairs and upgrades around the state. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation turned to the idea of tolling I-80 after the state legislature rejected Rendell's plan to raise almost $13 billion by leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike to an international consortium for 75 years.
It is the third time in three years that the FHWA has rejected Pennsylvania's bid to toll I-80, but the first application reviewed by the new Obama administration. The state planned to charge motorists $25 and truck drivers $100 to travel the east-west highway to help close a $2 billion per year shortfall in transportation funding. Tolls were expected to raise about $310 million per year for capital improvements.
Tolls are prohibited on interstate highways, but the Department of Transportation is permitted under the current transportation act to run a pilot program for select states to implement tolling. Under the rules, revenue from tolls can only be used to improve the tolled facility and not directed toward other state funding needs.
NATSO, the national association representing truck stops and travel plazas, applauded the FHWA's decision, which it feared would cause trucks and motorists to find alternative routes to bypass the tolls and hurt businesses along I-80.
Rendell has been an impassioned advocate for infrastructure investment at the state and national level, but has found it politically difficult to raise money for transportation projects. In a conference call with reporters, he said the DOT's decision was wrong, according to Reuters. Rendell said he would consider all funding options, from an oil gross profits tax, to a severance tax on natural gas produced from shale, taxing cigars and smokeless tobacco, and ending exemptions for big box retailers, Reuters reported.
State Rep. Rick Greist, R-Altoona, said it was 'irresponsible' for the state to base its transportation-funding plan on the assumption the federal government would allow I-80 to be converted to a toll facility.
Under Act 44, the state's 2007 transportation funding plan, the Turnpike Commission agreed to lease I-80 from PennDOT and make annual payments under the expectation that I-80 would become a toll road. The Turnpike Commission was committed in fiscal year 2010, if tolling authority had been obtained, to provide $900 million to PennDOT, with $500 million dedicated to road and bridge projects and $400 million to support transit agencies. In the absence of I-80 tolling, the commitment drops to $450 million, starting on July 1.
Geist said the Turnpike Commission pushed for an expanded mission in Act 44 and should hold to that commitment for the next three years while the state develops alternative funding options.
On Wednesday, Geist introduced a package of legislative proposals to address the state's infrastructure woes. For the third consecutive session, he is sponsoring legislation that would enable Pennsylvania to enter into public-private partnerships to maintain, improve or expand transportation facilities.
'Twenty-eight other states have some sort of enabling P3 legislation on the books and are moving ahead with this new funding paradigm,” he said. “Pennsylvania needs to get in the P3 game.”
Other provisions in Geist's transportation plan include:
' Phasing out over 10 years the $533 million in subsidies from the Motor License Fund that cover 75 percent of the Pennsylvania State Police's operating budget and using the money for its intended purpose of maintaining and improving highways and bridges. Geist says appropriations for the police should come from the General Fund.
' Authorizing PennDOT to enter into design-build contracts with private firms to handle the entire project development process in a streamlined fashion. PennDOT would operate and maintain any new facility.
' Tolling the 50 miles of I-95 that run through Pennsylvania to raise $20 billion for the rehabilitation of the crumbling roadway, which would meet FHWA criteria.
' Establishing a pilot program to outsource PennDOT maintenance of an entire interstate or region.
' Adjusting the percentage and ceiling of the 2006 Oil Company Franchise Tax so that it increases with the price of fuel.
' Allowing localities to implement sales or real estate transfer taxes to raise money for transit projects.
' Urging further study of a vehicle-miles-traveled tax.
Rendell said he would call a special session of the state legislature to address the transportation funding crisis. ' Eric Kulisch