(WASHINGTON, D.C.) — State Senator John R. Gordner (R-27) met last week with officials from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to urge a rejection of the application to toll I-80 that was recently resubmitted by PennDOT and the Turnpike Commission. Sen. Gordner was part of a delegation which consisted of State Senator Bob Robbins (R-50) and several members of the State House of Representatives including Rep. Russ Fairchild (R-85) and Rep. Merle Phillips (R-108). The meeting was requested by Congressmen Chris Carney (D-10), Paul Kanjorksi ( D-11), Glenn Thompson (R-5), and Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper (D-3).
FHWA officials scheduled one hour for a private meeting with the delegation followed by a public meeting where supporters of the tolling plan could present testimony. “I thought it was a very worthwhile meeting to present the arguments of tolling opponents in a face-to-face forum with the FHWA officials,” Sen. Gordner remarked. “I also thought it was interesting when the FHWA officials requested remarks from any proponents of the tolling plan present and nobody stepped forward.”
Sen. Gordner cited a letter he and nine of his colleagues had recently sent to the FHWA outlining the deficiencies in the resubmitted application. “The federal law authorizing tolling projects has not changed since the FHWA under the Bush Administration last rejected the plan on September 11, 2008 and this resubmitted application does not meet the standards required under federal law,” Sen. Gordner stated.
PennDOT and the Turnpike Commission have applied to toll I-80 under the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program. This pilot program requires an applicant to demonstrate the need for toll revenues from the interstate to reconstruct the existing roadway or construct additional facilities to increase capacity on that interstate. “This program is designed to fund the construction of projects which include high-occupancy vehicle lanes (HOV), new exit interchanges or additional lanes,” Sen. Gordner commented. “The Turnpike Commission’s plan for I-80 does not envision large scale projects to increase capacity or alleviate congestion and therefore lacks a legal basis for tolling under this pilot program.”
PennDOT completed a $1.1 billion I-80 reconstruction effort in 2005 and currently allots approximately $80 million annually for maintenance costs on the interstate. “In order to attempt to make its plan fit within the federal mandates, the Turnpike Commission submitted a study completed by a group with no expertise in the area of highway valuation to justify a 300% increase in maintenance costs.” Sen. Gordner stated. “This ‘valuation’ contradicts a 2005 study completed by PennDOT which concluded that I-80 should not be tolled because of PennDOTs proactive reconstruction efforts over the years.”
An additional problem with the application is the diversion of I-80 toll revenue to mass transit agencies. “The Turnpike Commission has consistently stated that the revenue raised from I-80 tolling will not be used for mass transit projects in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh,” Sen. Gordner remarked, “it is somewhat puzzling then that thePhiladelphia Inquirer recently reported that funding for SEPTA, the Southeastern PA transit agency, will decrease by $110 million next year if I-80 tolling is not authorized by the FHWA.”
The delegation also highlighted the devastating effect tolling will have on economic development in their respective districts and the fact that the Turnpike Commission may currently be subject to investigations involving corruption, patronage and other improper and/or illegal activities conducted by Pennsylvania’s Attorney General and the FBI.