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Interstate toll proposal deemed too expensive

| Wednesday, March 9, 2005

HARRISBURG -- A state Department of Transportation report recommends against turning Interstate 80, the major west-east thoroughfare across northern Pennsylvania, into a toll road.

Secretary of Transportation Allen Biehler told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday that the costs of setting up toll booths, maintenance facilities and police stations would exceed $650 million and take years to accomplish.

Lawmakers were looking at charging tolls on the 311-mile interstate to raise money for highway construction.

The transportation department study said it would be financially feasible to charge tolls on I-80 over the long haul, but it would take decades to break even and pay off the debt required for the project.

Biehler said the department concluded that "it wasn't a wise move to institute tolls at this time."

Sen. J. Barry Stout, D-Washington County, said he was "a little shocked to see the final conclusion." Stout, the minority chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he supported making I-80 a toll road because the tolls would largely be paid by truckers going from the Midwest to New York City.

PennDOT looked at setting up 10 toll booths across I-80 and assumed tolls of $25 for a passenger car to travel the entire length of the highway through Pennsylvania, according to the study. Drivers would have paid $2.50 at each toll booth.

Meanwhile, Gov. Ed Rendell's administration sent a message to lawmakers that federal highway money the governor has earmarked to support transit in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia over the next two years can still be used for roads if the General Assembly approves a separate funding stream for transit by June 30.

Biehler repeatedly told the Senate panel that while Rendell wants to use $68 million in highway money to get mass-transit agencies in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia through June, an additional $344 million from highway sources is in reserve to help transit if necessary. But Biehler said, "It is our firm hope that we don't have to use the money ($344 million) for transit."

Rendell is willing to listen to legislative solutions to try and resolve the transit crisis, Biehler said.

Last week, Rendell announced that $412 million in highway money -- most of it unexpected money from the federal government -- would be used to keep transit afloat for two years. He signed an executive order setting up a special commission to come up with final solutions by November 2006. That plan also would provide $530 million for highway construction.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Thompson, R-Chester County, called the change in direction by Rendell "a red herring."

"He's trying to instill fear into the highway people that your money will be gone," Thompson said.

Thompson insists there should be a permanent solution for transit. The only plan on the table from Rendell is a two-year funding solution that lawmakers rejected two weeks ago.

Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans, called it "a little back step" by Rendell. "I think there may have been a bit of a realization. His own people don't want to use all this road money," Miskin said.

A policy paper released yesterday by the Allegheny Institute said that any solution for transit must look at cost savings. It focused on the Port Authority of Allegheny County.

At the Port Authority, "bus service costs too much and is very inefficient. Compared to other systems around the country, Port Authority operations costs per passenger are among the very highest. These high comparative costs stem from two factors: low ridership per hour of bus operations and lofty labor costs," the paper stated.

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