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Tolling I-80

Published October 19. 2009 05:00PM

It's no secret that many of Pennsylvania's roads and bridges are in poor condition.

And things might only get worse, as federal funding to subsidize the projects, diminishes.

But Pennsylvania lawmakers think they have a solution to the problem. It involves turning I-80 into a toll road.

It's not a new idea. More than a year ago, federal regulators rejected a Pennsylvania plan to raise billions of dollars for its transportation needs by installing toll booths along I-80. It would have meant a huge boost in revenue for the Commonwealth.

In the coming weeks, Pennsylvania officials are going to try and resurrect the plan again. They will send federal regulators a financial analysis to justify the size of such a transaction. They're hoping the new administration in Washington will take a different view of the idea.

The I-80 leasing law the state Legislature approved in July 2007 also increased tolls on the existing turnpike, and so far the turnpike has produced $1.8 billion for Pennsylvania's road, bridge and transit needs. Think of the revenue that turning I-80 into a toll road would generate.

One argument in favor of tolling I-80 is that the majority of the traffic on that interstate is from out-of-state. Trucks from surrounding states utilize the interstate daily at no charge. It is due to the large amount of traffic of this kind that is responsible for wearing down the roads. It's time for the free ride to end.

The only option to not tolling I-80 would for the Commonwealth to again raise gasoline taxes, a move that would affect every motorist in the state, and not only those who use the interstate. This wouldn't be fair, nor would it be popular with residents who are already feeling the crunch of this ongoing recession.

Rep. Joe Markosek, the Allegheny County legislator who chairs the Transportation Committee in the state House of Representatives, said the state's transportation needs are vast going into a period in which federal money is expected to become scarcer. "Our infrastructure keeps getting a year older every year," Markosek said. "We essentially have no choice, and my response to critics of it up there is ... have their legislators or congressmen sponsor legislation to raise taxes to pay for it. But in lieu of that, we've got to toll."

When turnpike fees went up last year there was little opposition. Most motorists recognized it as a part of doing business, of dealing with these recessionary times. We think tolling I-80 would have a similar impact, despite the opposition it receives now.

If the law isn't passed, and federal money doesn't come in, the current administration will have to scale back plans for road and bridge projects.

It's time to look at the big picture. And tolling I-80 could be a huge factor in determining the conditions of our highways in the future.

Bob Urban

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