Five Alternatives to Tolling I-80

A recent Pocono Record article calls the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s proposal to toll I-80 “a riddle with no easy answers” (HT GrassrootsPA). However, there are alternatives to that plan, which is little more than a tax on I-80 drivers, that would free up dollars to be spent appropriately on transportation infrastructure.

  1. Repeal prevailing wage laws. Prevailing wage laws drive up costs for construction. State mandated wages for government projects 40% higher, on average, than the private sector pays for the same work. Repealing these laws, and paying market wages, would free up hundred of millions, if not billions, for highway construction and repair.
  2. Stop redirecting highway and bridge money to other purposes. While the transportation community bemoans the need for additional funding, citing structurally deficient bridges and dilapidated roads, hundreds of millions of dollars each year are redirected from road maintenance to bike trails, beautification projects, and new roads named for politicians. Just recently, Rendell gave $7 million from a mysterious pot of money in PennDOT to give bonuses to SEPTA workers, rewarding them for striking on election day.

    Furthermore, Act 44 – which includes tolls on I-80 and higher Turnpike tolls – promises $250 million annually for mass transit even if I-80 isn’t tolled (and a ten-year average of $414 million to transit agencies if it is). These toll dollars should not be used to prop up inefficient transit agencies, but should be dedicated to bridge and highways – specifically those used by Turnpike drivers.

  3. Enable public-private partnerships. Public-private partnerships (P3s) are the emerging paradigm in transportation funding. While the proposed Turnpike lease received the bulk of media attention, P3s are far more expansive than that. Using P3s on new construction – express lanes, high occupancy lanes, new highways, new bridges, and the like – are much less controversial, and could happen now. Len Gilroy of the Reason Foundation outlined the potential for P3 in Pennsylvania in a recent testimony.
  4. Eliminate the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC). Instead of giving the Turnpike Commission control over I-80, we should eliminate what is among the most corrupt and inefficient agencies in the country. Doing so, rolling the Turnpike Commission into PennDOT, and eliminating an unnecessary bureaucracy (e.g. the PTC employs one “manager” per mile of road) would offer substantial saving in transportation spending.
  5. Privatize rest stops. While the state spends taxpayer dollar to manage rest stops along its highways, they could make money by privatizing them, and leasing out the property to restaurants and service stations. While service plazas can be found along the Turnpike, federal law prohibits this amongst freeways. However, as Ronald Utt points out in a recent Heritage paper, this law was intended to protect existing businesses in the 1950s – most of which no longer exist – and there is little will to enforce it. In fact, Pennsylvania already has privatized several rest stops, but there is opportunity to do much more – for instance, along I-80.

The idea that we simply need to spend more money in transportation – and raise taxes or tolls to do so – is wrong-headed. Until the state starts spending current tax and toll dollars efficiently, and capitalizes on opportunities for private funding, lawmakers have no reason to ask taxpayers and drivers for more revenue.