The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

March 24, 2010

Let the bell toll for I-80 tolls

Gov. Ed Rendell met with the U.S. secretary of transportation Tuesday in Washington, D.C., to make a last-ditch pitch for letting Pennsylvania place tolls on Interstate 80.

After the meeting, the governor declined to speak to reporters, other than to say he does not believe a decision from the federal government is imminent.

The state has been waiting for a reply from the Federal Highway Administration since turnpike officials submitted their third application for tolls last October. If the I-80 tolls aren’t approved, the turnpike’s transfer to the state Department of Transportation will drop from an anticipated $922 million in fiscal 2011 to $450 million, deepening transit agencies’ deficits and leaving leaner highway construction budgets.

Rendell’s proposed 2011 budget includes tolling revenue. Put another way, the commonwealth will be faced with a gap in the budget in excess of $450 million from the loss of tolling revenue alone. That is not including other factors such as reduced tax revenue from the recession.

Pennsylvanians could be faced with budget debacle deja vu, repeating the embarrassing impasse that dragged from the summer well into fall in 2009.

Federal officials ought to say enough is enough and issue the proper decision — rejecting the tolling plan.

Tolling the interstate could be justified if the state wanted to argue that the highway was unsafe, deteriorated or inadequate for traffic volumes. That was not the case the first two times the tolling application was rejected and it is not the case now.

It is difficult to imagine what could be causing the delayed decision other than the intense lobbying of urban politicians who see the plan as the least painful remedy for their constituents.

Rendell, a lame duck who will soon return to his Philadelphia roots, ought to cease the arm-twisting and turn his attention to coming up with an alternative source of transportation funding.

Prolonging the decision will only make it more difficult and set the commonwealth up for another budget crisis.