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Ruling on I-80 tolls costs Pennsylvania $472 million |

Ruling on I-80 tolls costs Pennsylvania $472 million

| Wednesday, April 7, 2010 12:00 a.m

HARRISBURG — The federal government’s rejection of Pennsylvania’s plan to toll Interstate 80 creates a $472 million hole in the state transportation budget that will shelve hundreds of road and bridge projects, Gov. Ed Rendell said Tuesday.

Rendell plans to call for a special session of the General Assembly to consider options to replace the revenue, from reviving his earlier plan to lease the Turnpike to a private company to increasing gasoline taxes or drivers’ fees.

“There is no way we can do nothing,” Rendell said.

Scrapping the proposal to charge tolls on I-80 means the equivalent of 300 miles of road would not be repaired, about 100 bridge projects would be stalled and nearly 12,000 jobs would be lost as a result of construction that’s halted, he said.

“The decision will affect every nook and cranny of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said House Transportation Chairman Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville. “Anyone who thinks this will be easy or painless is wrong because we have an aging transportation infrastructure with vast needs.”

The Federal Highway Administration made the announcement last night.

“We based today’s decision on what is allowable under federal law,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.

The “pilot program” that let states collect tolls on federally funded interstates required the toll revenue be used only to improve the highway being tolled. Pennsylvania’s application would have directed the money to transportation projects elsewhere in the state.

“For the past three years, the Commonwealth has put all its eggs in the tolling basket and disregarded other options for funding highways and transit,” said U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-State College, an opponent of the tolls. “Thanks to Act 44, the Turnpike Commission is up to its eyeballs in debt because of the borrowing done based on the premise that I-80 would be tolled.”

In 2007, the Act 44 transportation funding bill set the state’s annual contributions to transit agencies like Port Authority of Allegheny County on the assumption the tolls would be approved. About $160 million of the toll money would have gone to mass transit.

Without the I-80 tolls, Port Authority stands to lose $25 million in its budget year starting July 1, and CEO Steve Bland has said officials may consider cuts at all levels of service and staffing. The agency faced a $25 million deficit in the early stages of planning the budget and raised fares to fill a $4 million deficit this year.

“The failure to meet the funding commitments under Act 44 would force Port Authority to consider sharp service cuts that could isolate neighborhoods and severely compromise regional mobility in the Pittsburgh region,” Bland said in a statement.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, which distributes money for transportation projects in the 10 counties surrounding Pittsburgh, estimates it would lose about $400 million over the next four years without I-80 tolls.

State Rep. Rick Geist, R-Altoona, ranking Republican on the transportation committee, pointed to potential solutions such as “user fees,” including a gas tax increase and public-private partnerships in which roads are leased to private companies.

“We have been an opponent of these get-rich-quick schemes like tolling and leasing the whole time,” said Jim Runk, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truckers Association. “The fairest way we believe things should be done is to have everyone pay a part of it,” possibly through higher fuel taxes or registration fees that motorists would pay statewide.

Pennsylvania charges a tax of 32.3 cents per gallon on unleaded gasoline and 39.2 cents per gallon on diesel fuel, giving it the 13th-highest state tax in the country, according to the Washington-based Tax Foundation. That’s added to federal gas taxes of 18.4 cents and 24.4 cents per gallon, respectively.

Additional Information:

Hit and run

No tolls on Interstate 80 means less money for transit agencies.

• $450 million — The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s payment to PennDOT this year, $472 million less than expected

• $400 million — Amount the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission would have gotten over four years if tolls were approved

• $25 million — Capital funding Port Authority of Allegheny County won’t get now that tolls have been rejected

• $110 million — Amount SEPTA transit in the Philadelphia area will cut from its capital budget for 2011 without I-80 tolls

Sources: Turnpike Commission, SPC, Port Authority, SEPTA

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