Pattye Benson

Community Matters


Residents Say No to 422 Tolling . . . What About the Leasing of I-95?

Governor-elect Corbett has his work cut out for him come January. During the campaign, he promised no new taxes yet took a pledge to “reduce congestion and build new roads”. Now will come the seriousness of how to pay for these promises. We all know where just the discussion of the ‘possible’ tolling of 422 factored in the last election!

It was with interest that I read a report from Harrisburg about I-95 through Philadelphia and the price tag for repairs and rebuilding. The 20-mile stretch was built back in the 70’s and probably epitomizes the severity of roads in the Commonwealth in need of serious repair. Considering its daily use as a major corridor that brings people into Philadelphia and through the area, a 95 rebuilding project would be massive (and costly).

With a price tag estimated to be $20 billion (the entire Pennsylvania Department of Transportation budget for new highway construction was $1.8 billion in 2010) some elected officials are scratching their head as how could the state ever pay for such a project. One idea being considered is leasing the highway as well as others across the state.

State Rep. Rick Geist (R-Blair), chair of the House Transportation Committee has been vocal that I-95 needs more than repairs, that this stretch of the highway will need to be rebuilt within the next 10 years. If you recall a couple of years ago, a stretch of the elevated road had to be shut down for repairs when large structural cracks were found in the support columns . . . warding off what could have been a serious situation had the overpass collapsed during the height of rush-hour.

Reflect on the overall state of roads in Pennsylvania. I have mentioned this before but I think it bears repeating – according to the Society of Civil Engineers, they have rated 38% of the Commonwealth’s roads at a ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ level. Folks, it doesn’t get much worse . . . in fact they further suggest that one-fourth of all the state’s bridges are structurally deficient and 17% of our bridges are deemed functionally obsolete. Scary, don’t you think?

So maybe the only solution for updating of the infrastructure is a private leasing arrangement. There is a group called the Public-Private Partnership (P3), which will take care of the cost of repairing and maintaining the major highways. So what does P3 gain from this arrangement? The private firms place tolls on the road to cover their expenses. Not sure if the Department of Transportation would have oversight or any control on the tolling levels. The Federal Highway Administration encourages the use of P3 partnerships as a means to pay for needed highway repairs when there are funding issues.

I know that many in the community were opposed to the tolling of 422 but I am curious if people feel likewise about I-95. And what about the notion of a private third-party making the decisions and setting the tolls? Pennsylvania’s road and bridge infrastructure is in crisis but, with so many lawmakers running in this last campaign on no increase in taxes platform, how are these roads and bridges repaired? The money must come from somewhere but I guess for me, I think the idea of a private leasing arrangement should be looked at very cautiously. The suggestion of ‘giving up control’ to a third-party; I just do not know if that is the solution.

Look at the aging Pennsylvania Turnpike. At approximately 70 years old, how will its future maintenance and care factor in to the transportation budget? In addition, how much revenue was lost with the failure to place tolls on I-80? Lawmakers are facing a $472 million annual transportation budget shortfall that was created by the loss of tolls on I-80. And that does not consider the suggestion last summer of an additional $3 billion increase annually to cover the cost of maintaining the aging roads and bridges.

With many newly elected officials arriving in Harrisburg with the no new tax mantra, how are these serious infrastructure problems going to be resolved? We need some vision for the future from our lawmakers. Not meaning to over-dramatize the situation but do they want the blood on their hands should a major catastrophe occur on one of these roads or bridges?

Does the state take charge of these needed transportation repair projects or does an independent leasing company take charge? Or, . . . do we do nothing and just ‘cross our fingers’.

State’s Rights of Interstate Tolling May Pose an Additional Transportation Issue for Drucker & Kampf . . . Tolling of I-95 in Pennsylvania?

The topic of 422 tolling has spurred much debate and discussion on Community Matters – along with the cost to develop the proposed 422 master plan and questions about how it would be financed. As a result, I was interested to read that there are plans in the works in Harrisburg for a special session to discuss transportation issues state-wide.

After recently passing the state’s budget, the idea is that the special session on transportation would present an opportunity to address Pennsylvania’s estimated $3 billion in needed revenue for transportation projects. A funding gap of $450 million was created when the Federal Highway Administration denied the tolling of I-80; the special session focus is to encourage the lawmakers to reach a consensus on how to fund the transportation funding gap.

Unfortunately, the $450 million number continues to increase. In May, the Transportation Advisory Committee said that it would take $3.5 billion annually to maintain Pennsylvania’s roadways over the next 20 years. That need is strongly linked to the increase of traffic predicted for the state’s roads. One report estimates that the number of trucks on Pennsylvania’s interstates will increase by 50% by 2030.

No date yet set for the special session but probably will occur in late August. It is hoped the meeting will encourage consensus building in tackling the considerable transportation issues. One of the specific areas of focus for the lawmakers will be I-95 as it runs through Philadelphia. This section is one of the most expensive to maintain because it is elevated nearly its entire route through the city. But I-95 is also one of the most important roads through the city and not an easy one to close for repairs and upgrades.

With tolling of I-80 off the table, I have read about some interesting proposals to help the transportation shortfall including a series of suggestions by State Rep Rick Geist (R-Blair) who serves as the minority chair of the Transportation Committee. One of Blair’s suggestions is to ask the federal government for the right to toll I-95 as it did for I-80. I don’t really see how there is any difference between the request to toll I-95 vs. I-80. In denying the I-80 toll request, the US Department of Transportation told the governor no tolling because state plans for use of the proceeds are not permitted under existing federal law.

My guess is that there is a grassroots effort to encourage the change in the law and to give the use of the state tolling revenue back to the individual states and out of the federal government hands. This poses an interesting situation regarding federal vs states rights as it relates to tolling of interstate highways. The state of North Carolina has determined that if they were to toll their 185 mi. stretch of I-95, revenue would be $300-350 million annually. So maybe the lawmakers in Harrisburg are going to seriously consider the tolling of I-95. But to expect a different outcome than received from the I-80 toll request would require Pennsylvania to join the movement to change the federal law and give authority of how the tolling dollars are spent to the individual states. How do we feel about changing federal law and giving more rights to the individual states as applied to interstate tolling? Remember the federal vs. state control issues . . .

Another idea of Griest’s is to raise the ceiling on the Oil Company Franchise Tax, which reached its current ceiling in 2006, and divesting the state police from the Motor License Fund, which could free up $500 million annual for transportation.

The chair of the House Transportation Committee, State Rep Joseph Markosek (D-Allegheny) said one idea which had gained some support was the use of public-private partnerships (known as P3’s), which allow private firms to manage public properties such as highways.

As an aside, a toll increase on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in January will make it the most expensive long toll road in the nation. This past week the Turnpike Commission approved a 3 percent increase for users of E-ZPass and 10 percent increase for cash customers, effective Jan. 2, 2011. That will raise the cash cost of driving the turnpike to 8.5 cents per mile, highest of the 11 U.S. toll roads of 100 miles or longer. Currently, the Pennsylvania and New Jersey turnpikes are tied at 7.7 cents per mile.

It is looking like 422 tolling may not be the only transportation topic debated in the upcoming Drucker – Kampf square off . . . I look forward to hearing the 157 candidate’s opinion on I-95 tolling and on federal vs. state’s rights on interstate tolling.

And just when we thought it was safe to go back in the water . . .

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