Tolling I-80 is a Recipe for Disaster

Once again, state lawmakers, bureaucrats and special interest groups are looking for another way to grab more money from Pennsylvanians.  The latest rendition is tolling Interstate 80 across the northern tier of Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the I-80 tolling proposal doesn’t comply with federal law, ignores much-needed reform in transportation funding, and will harm Pennsylvania’s economy.

As it turns out, the I-80 tolling scheme was never a true “toll” but rather a tax on I-80 drivers.  Instead of funding improvements, maintenance, and operation of the road itself, I-80 toll revenue would be diverted to fund other road projects around the state, as well as mass transit in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Not only is this redistribution inequitable, it is illegal.  The federal program which allows tolling of some federal highways requires toll revenue to be used exclusively on the highway from which it was derived.  The proposed tolling of I-80 does not meet this criterion, but that hasn’t stopped an intense lobbying and public relations campaign by the Turnpike Commission and its allies.

Much of the argument for I-80 tolls is based on the premise that transportation—particularly road and bridge repair—has been underfunded in Pennsylvania.  But there’s more to that story.  State transportation spending increased 121% from 1995 to 2009—more than triple the rate of inflation.  Even before Act 44—which allowed the Turnpike Commission to borrow billions—state road, bridge, and highway spending had increased 90% through 2007, fueled by one of the highest gasoline tax rates in the country.

Pennsylvania does not have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem. In fact, in 2006 the Pennsylvania Transportation Funding and Reform Commission (PTFRC) recommended: “no additional funding should be provided for highways, bridges and transit unless a series of parallel actions are taken to reform funding structure and a number of transportation business practices.”  Yet Act 44 and the tolling of I-80 is designed to generate additional funding without the reforms on the spending side of the ledger.

One of the biggest parasites of transportation dollars is Pennsylvania’s Prevailing Wage Law. Under this statute, all public projects are required to pay wages set by the state, which increases the cost to taxpayers by up to 30%. By not allowing the market to determine wages, taxpayers annually pay billions in excess costs. To get true infrastructure reform, Pennsylvania needs to axe this antiquated and wasteful policy.

Finally, Act 44 would put tolling I-80 into the hands of one of the most corrupt and inefficient government agencies in the state, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC). Turning I-80 over to the PTC would ensure further inefficiencies and exacerbate the Keystone State’s transportation problems.

The PTC has long been known as an agency marked by patronage and corruption. It is no coincidence that Vince Fumo, the Philadelphia State Senator convicted on 137 counts relating to corruption, conspiracy and fraud, frequently utilized the agency to spend other people’s money. Placing something as vital to Pennsylvania’s economy as transportation infrastructure in the hands of corrupt PTC bureaucrats is quite simply a recipe for disaster.

While tolling, at least to some extent, will likely be part of the long-term transportation solution, it should be a part of comprehensive reform.  Tolls should be linked to the road itself, as a true user fee, not just a generic source of revenue. I-80 shouldn’t be tolled to fund roads in another part of the state, while I-79 in Pittsburgh or I-95 through Philadelphia remains untolled.  Tolling should be used to replace tax revenue, not simply increase funding for a wasteful bureaucracy.  Private companies should competitively bid on the right to manage new toll roads, instead of giving another sweetheart deal to the Turnpike Commission.  And toll roads should not be used to subsidize mass transit systems, which should also face competitive bidding and be funded primarily by users.

Tolling I-80 is nothing more than a new revenue scheme of the Turnpike Commission, by the Turnpike Commission, and for the Turnpike Commission. Until Pennsylvania lawmakers reform how they spend current transportation dollars, it is absurd to talk about ways to generate new revenue.

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Michael J. Nerozzi is a Research Associate with the Commonwealth Foundation, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.