Turnpike CEO’s spin on I-80 tolling

Following the return of the PennDOT-PTC bid to toll I-80 (See our news release here), Turnpike CEO Brimmeier is in full spin mode. From the Post-Gazette:

Turnpike Executive Director Joseph Brimmeier wasn’t losing his cool. He sounded certain he can supply the necessary information to satisfy the Federal Highway Administration and keep the application on track.

From the Tribune-Review:

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s executive director, Joe Brimmeier, called the letter that arrived Wednesday an expected step in the consideration of any major transportation project.

“This is a huge, huge project and for anybody to think that there would not be numerous meetings and numerous exchanges of information then that person has never done a deal or a project of this magnitude,” Brimmeier said Thursday.

Remember, this is the guy who reportedly told colleagues I-80 tolling was a “done deal” back in October.

That notwithstanding, let’s review the letter from the FHWA.

  • Of the 14 questions, a few are simple requests for more info (provide copies of state report, proposed project schedule, projected toll revenues).
  • The cover letter states that “conditional approvals” are less likely with increased competition for the last remaining spot – meaning that even if the I-80 plan met with all the requirements, Pennsylvania would still not be guaranteed anything, except maybe a one in six chance. Are those odds good enough to keep borrowing money based on I-80 tolls?
  • Three questions ask why the PTC is applying a program intended to improve highways, when the plan doesn’t call for improving I-80 in any way. My guess is the PTC could invent an “improvement plan” that may or may not be pure BS.
  • A couple questions pertain to getting feedback from planning organizations and considering “the interests of local, regional, and interstate travellers”. Since the PTC is only now (after crafting their plan), asking for feedback, and since the feedback is overwhelmingly negative, does PTC answer “We consider the interests of local groups. Residents, businesses, state lawmakers, and Congressional representative of the I-80 corridor all oppose tolling I-80. Please approve our plan anyway.”?
  • A number of the questions are rhetorical, in the context of “Are you nuts? Did you really think we would go for this?”
    • One question asks how this fits the requirement that I-80 “could not be maintained or improved” when Pennsylvania has plenty of federal aid money sitting around and transferred some to other uses. How can PennDOT answer that honestly?
    • One question asks the PTC to “reconcile” statements made that “toll revenue will only be used for I-80” with the lease agreement. In other words, “You lied on your application, please explain.”
    • Another question asks if they will be using I-80 toll revenue to pay of debt unrelated to I-80 improvements. The answer is yes, even though that would violate the program requirements.
    • Finally, the last question asks how “payment from the PTC to PennDOT made using I-80 toll revenues were derived and are properly considered operating cots?”

Basically, the bottom line is that under this program you can’t use I-80 tolls for purposes other than maintaining I-80, which is exactly what Act 44 calls for. No response from the Turnpike Commission can fix that.