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Pennsylvania

Rendell calls toll resistance 'cop-out'

| Friday, July 27, 2007

Gov. Ed Rendell lashed out at a Republican in Washington who is trying to block the state's plan to put toll booths on Interstate 80.

U.S. Rep. John Peterson, the governor said, "doesn't know what he's talking about."

Peterson, from Pleasantville in Venango County, attached an amendment to a federal transportation bill that Rendell said would effectively ban tolls on I-80 in Pennsylvania. The tolls are an integral part of the multibillion-dollar state transportation plan enacted last week after months of tough negotiations. Without the tolls, the state would lose half of the $950 million a year it plans to pump into mass transit agencies and road and bridge repairs.

"The guy doesn't know one bloody thing about what he's talking about," Rendell, a Democrat, said of Peterson. "I don't know if that's a usual occurrence. You guys would have to tell me that, because I don't live in this area.

"What the Congress did was absolutely irresponsible," Rendell said, calling Peterson's amendment "a political cop-out."

Peterson's amendment banned federal money from being used to "establish or collect tolls" on the 300-mile portion of I-80 spanning Pennsylvania. The U.S. Department of Transportation has to approve the toll booths before they're built, and Peterson's amendment would block anyone who receives a federal paycheck from looking at the state's application, Rendell said.

Rendell is to blame for the state's transit-funding crisis, Peterson said, because the governor failed to force transit agencies to cut costs and then gave them $500 million from the Motor Vehicle License Fund, which is supposed to pay for road repairs.

"If he'd like to refute that, I'd like to see the numbers," said Peterson, who opposes the toll plan because he fears it would make Pennsylvania less attractive to businesses. "He's not done anything to hold the line on mass transit spending, but instead has tried to fund it with the state's Motor Vehicle License Fund. If he thinks those aren't facts, I'd be happy to debate him on that."

U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter and Bob Casey Jr. told Rendell the amendment would not be part of the Senate transportation bill, Rendell said. Both pledged to work to scrap the amendment when the House and Senate versions of the bill go to a conference committee in October, Rendell said.

State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, said he would lobby to kill Peterson's amendment, and offered a calmer assessment of the situation.

"I don't think it means anything at this point," Pileggi said. "There's no indication it will survive the conference process."

Even if Congress deletes Peterson's amendment, there's no guarantee the U.S. Department of Transportation will approve Pennsylvania's plan to put tolls on I-80. Rendell and Pileggi, however, said they're encouraged by their contacts with federal officials.

"There's a federal preference, it seems, toward tolling certain interstates," Pileggi said.

Rendell repeated his warning yesterday that, to ensure the state's transportation package has enough money, he'll revive his plan to privatize the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The plan never got much support in the General Assembly, however, and Rendell acknowledged yesterday he can't privatize the highway unilaterally.

That was how Rendell originally proposed paying for the state's transportation needs, something he reiterated while criticizing Peterson.

"In no way, shape or form was that my plan," Rendell said.

Peterson fired back that Rendell "signed it, he was part of it, he's endorsed it, he's selling it. He's the main gun. The buck stops at his table."

Rendell was speaking in Ambridge, where he and local officials announced $360,000 in state aid. The money will help repair municipal buildings and pay the interest on loans to businesses damaged in a July 5 flood. The state police donated five police cruisers to replace the Ambridge police cars destroyed in the flood.

After announcing the aid, Rendell, responding to reporters' questions, criticized Peterson and U.S. Rep. Phil English, R-Erie, for not calling him with their concerns before they tried to block the largest component of the state transportation plan. English backed Peterson's amendment.

"These fellows never hesitate to contact me when they want something," Rendell said.

Peterson said he didn't get the chance.

"No one warned me. There was not one public hearing (on the I-80 plan) held in Harrisburg or the affected areas," Peterson said.

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