Tolling I-80 and the Presidential Election
The theme of change has dominated the presidential election. Both Barack Obama and John McCain (and their vice presidential picks) tout themselves as agents of change, ready to reform Washington and take on special interests. But if these candidates want to demonstrate their commitment to reform, they should voice their opposition to the proposed tolling of I-80 across Pennsylvania.
The plan to toll I-80 represents bi-partisan exploitation of a corrupt system at its worst. In 2007, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) used its political ties and lobbying machinations to enact a plan dramatically expanding their authority—allowing them to toll I-80, as well as increase Turnpike tolls without limit and incur billions of dollars in debt. Following an intense public relations effort—in which the PTC spent millions in toll dollars for lobbying expenditures and radio, TV, and newspaper ads across the state to promote its plan.
This plan, Act 44 of 2007, passed with no committee hearings, no public discussions with lawmakers, and no opportunity for the public to weigh in on what became Act 44. There were no studies conducted on the impact of tolling I-80, though a 2005 PennDOT study that recommended against tolling I-80 was ignored. Only the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and their legislative patrons—were at the backroom table making the deal.
The Turnpike Commission’s long history of patronage and corruption is well documented, most recently in state Senator Vincent Fumo’s federal indictment (detailing numerous instances of illegal activities tied to the Commission) and Turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier’s acknowledged penchant for hiring family members. Recent revisions to the PTC’s plans to toll I-80 have dramatically increased the amount of debt to be paid off by tollpayers. Pennsylvania taxpayers and tollpayers will now be paying this debt for decades. Under no circumstances should the PTC be given any additional dominion over Pennsylvania’s transportation infrastructure.
Happily, there is still a chance to kill this plan. As I-80 is a federal highway, funded with federal dollars, approval from U.S. Department of Transportation is required. While the Federal Highway Administration is reviewing the latest revision of the proposal, the Pennsylvania Congressional delegation (less Senators Casey and Specter) have offered their advice—with bipartisan opposition from those representing the I-80 corridor, and support coming only from Democratic Congressmen representing the southern part of the state. Why haven’t our presidential candidates taken a stand?
Opposition by the next President of the United States could put the final nail in the coffin of this horrific plan. Not only is opposing I-80 tolling the right thing to do but it could be a political winner as well.
Aside from being terrible public policy, I-80 tolling is among the most important issues for citizens and business in the northern tier of Penn’s Woods. While the economy is a dominant issue for most voters, for residents whose economy depends on a toll-free I-80, this is an issue of economic survival. Public opinion polls show that over 80 percent of those people living near I-80 view tolling as a top issue when they vote on state and federal candidates in November. A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows an overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians statewide oppose the tolling of Interstate 80.
Pennsylvania remains an important swing state, with John McCain currently trailing Barack Obama by 4 to 6 points in most polls. Recent polls also show McCain besting Obama by 10-12 points along the I-80 corridor—an area Bush carried by over 20 points. By weighing in on the most important local issue—but one determined by federal policy—either candidate could galvanize the electorate in that area and lock up Pennsylvania’s 21 electoral votes.
The tolling of I-80 is an issue that the both candidates should campaign strongly and visibly against. The plan for I-80 tolling has the hallmarks of what Senator McCain has been fighting against and the “change you can believe in” Senator Obama supports: a shady last minute deal that leaves taxpayers holding the bag, unsecured debt to keep the bi-partisan patronage machine alive, and blatant abuse of federal regulations of highways.
Rejecting the proposed tolling of I-80 is by its very nature good-government reform. Will our presidential candidates stand up to the special interests, or continue to endorse business-as-usual policymaking?
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Nathan Benefield is Director of Policy Research with the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute and Ryan Shafik is the Communications Director for the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research (www.lincolninstitute.org), a non-partisan, non-profit public opinion research institute.