WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Tuesday, the U.S. House passed an amendment offered by Congressmen John E. Peterson, R-Pleasantville, and Phil English, R-Erie, to an annual transportation funding bill which prohibits federal funds from being used toward installing tolls and related construction along Pennsylvania’s portion of Interstate 80. Peterson’s district has more of I-80 going through it than any other congressional district in the commonwealth.
“The governor and state legislature’s proposal, taking I-80 from PennDOT and giving it to the bloated Turnpike Commission to peppering tolls across rural Pennsylvania, was a terrible decision and would cause irreversible economic damage,” said Peterson, a member of the Appropriations Committee.
“Tolling I-80 rolls up the welcome mat and tells visitors and customers of local businesses to go elsewhere,” English said. “At a time when western Pennsylvania communities like Sharon, need pro-growth policies in difficult economic circumstances, the Rendell proposal slams the door on economic expansion and opportunities in our region. We are not going to stand by while Harrisburg raids western Pennsylvania travelers and picks truckers’ pockets to prop up Philadelphia’s mass transit system.”
Lead by Gov. Ed Rendell, a Philadelphia Democrat, I-80 will now be tolled and fall under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. Rendell claimed that there were only two options to finance state transportation funding increases; raise the state gas tax even higher or toll I-80.
However, Peterson maintains that tolling I-80 is an effort to support mass transit in urban parts of the state, which already receive nearly most of the state’s transportation funding. Peterson believes that those that live and do business along the rural I-80 corridor should not bear the burden of supporting transit systems on another side of the state, while their own transportation needs remain neglected.
“While the governor should be working to reduce Pennsylvania’s corporate and gasoline taxes to attract new business and create jobs, he would rather tax rural folks through tolls to subsidize Philadelphia’s failed SEPTA program,” said Peterson, who served in the State House and Senate for 19 years.
Peterson also expressed apprehension over placing the operation, management, maintenance and upgrades to I-80 in the hands of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, a government bureaucracy controlled by urban Pennsylvania.
“Small Community transit systems will be bought off with scraps in comparison to what mass transit in other parts of the state will receive. Tolling I-80 will force traffic off I-80 and onto our local highways, thereby causing increased maintenance costs, congestion and traffic accidents,” said Peterson. “The contract should be opened for a competitive bidding process and not be given to a bureaucracy that throughout the years has shown questionable practices and general poor management of resources.”
Peterson continued: “The amount of federal money transferred from the state motor license fund to mass transit funds in Pennsylvania is unprecedented compared to the rest of the country, further underscoring the inequity in the state government’s transportation agencies.”
A thorough 2005 PennDoT study determined that “based on the long timetable to realize benefits, the high costs of converting the road to toll and the fact that a financial break-even point is decades away, it is recommended that converting I-80 to a toll road not be pursued at this time.” Standing by the study was Rendell’s PennDOT secretary, Allen Biehler, who told a Senate committee that they would not toll I-80, which has been free since it opened in the late 1960s.