By Wayne Laepple
The Daily Item
MILTON — Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission officials got an earful Monday night during an information session at Milton Area High School.
Residents, civic leaders and truckers all expressed their disapproval of Act 44, the legislation that directed the commission to look into placing tolls on Interstate 80 to raise funds for highway and bridge repairs statewide.
No one rose to support the proposal, and most who spoke were skeptical of the motives of the commission in making the proposal in the first place.
Barry Schoch, an engineer with McCormick-Taylor, the consultant hired by the commission to gather data for the project, and Brian Ranck, project manager for the turnpike commission, were peppered with questions for nearly an hour following a 15-minute DVD presentation in the high school auditorium.
Before the presentation, a crowd circulated through the lobby of the auditorium to view a series of informational panels prepared by the consultant, while a dozen or more McCormick-Taylor people were on hand to field specific questions.
After viewing the panel, which described the proposed toll structure of eight cents a mile for passenger vehicles and 30 cents a mile for trucks, William Bien, a teacher at Milton Area High School who lives in Bloomsburg, observed, "I don't like the fact that it will cost me money to get to work both ways."
Preston Boop, a Union County commissioner who opposed the proposal from the start, said, "The train is rolling out of the station. The only way to stop this now is if the federal government says no. We have to convince Congress to deny the application."
Mr. Boop said he doesn't think the rural counties along I-80 should be a scapegoat for the rest of the state.
"We've already been sold out by our state assembly," he said. "We don't have the power to overrule the others, and we're going to have to pay the bill."
Mr. Boop's solution is to raise the fuel tax.
"There'd be no new infrastructure to support," he said. "Every dollar would go to roads and bridges. It's so simple."
Although representatives from U.S. Reps. Chris Carney and John Peterson were at the meeting, Mr. Boop was the only county commissioner from the region to attend. Other commissioners may have attended an earlier meeting held especially for them.
Many people entering the school wore stickers proclaiming "No toll I-80."
One of them was Harold Wohlheiter, an independent trucker from Mifflinburg.
"This area has lost several thousand jobs in the last 10 years, and if this happens, it will take even more," he said.
He said he would prefer an increase in the fuel tax over tolls on I-80.
"It costs me $118 to drive across the state from the Ohio border to New Jersey on the turnpike. Instead, I drive I-80 to the Northeast Extension and then down. It takes me longer and is more miles, but it doesn't cost me $118 in time and fuel," he declared.
More than 100 people watched the DVD presentation in the high school auditorium, and following the DVD presentation, Mr. Schoch took questions from the audience and answered if he could.
The first question was greeted with applause.
"The federal law that set up the interstate system said there would never be tolls on the interstate highways, so how can you do this?" one audience member asked.
Mr. Schoch said the law was changed when the highway bill was reauthorized a few years ago to permit tolls under certain circumstances.
The questioner than asked what the economics of the proposal were, and Mr. Schoch replied that no studies have been done yet.
Mike Glazer, a staffer for Rep. Peterson, R-5, of Pleasantville, said Mr. Peterson's district included 170 miles of I-80, from the Susquehanna River to Venango County.
"It's rural Pennsylvania, and we have a very delicate economy," he told Mr. Schoch. "If the Federal Highway Administration approves this, it is the death knell for us."
Mr. Glazer warned that constituents never see what is promised by their state representatives.
"People do not trust state government," he said. "They feel like this is being pushed down their throats. This isn't a Republican or Democratic thing, it's a Pennsylvania thing."
Maria Culp, president of the Central Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce, said, "The truth needs to be told. Act 44 was passed overnight, just like they did with the pay raises. It's a way for the Turnpike Commission to ensure its survival. They can toll I-80 to eliminate the competition from I-80."
Michael Goldman, of Watsontown, said I-80 has the lowest traffic count of all the interstate highways in the state, but it also has the lowest population density.
"I-95 has the highest population, but it's not going to happen there because it's political," he said, as the audience applauded. "The only way to beat this is to get to your congressman."
Others said the region cannot stand to lose any more jobs, stating that several area industries have already said they might leave if tolls are enacted.
"This is a bad idea," said one. "The bureaucrats and politicians will line their pockets. We're taxed enough."
Executives from several trucking firms said their businesses would suffer because the proposed tolls would force them to increase their rates, even as fuel costs and labor rates have increased.
Steve Patton, of Watsontown Trucking, said his cost of doing business would increase by $760,000. He also took issue with claims that I-80 was in poor shape. He said he surveyed his drivers, who rated I-80 the best road in the state, while the Pennsylvania Turnpike was the worst.
"Is this what we should expect if the turnpike takes over I-80?" he asked.
Richard Bowersox, of Milton Transportation, said his firm estimated an increase of $883,000 if tolls are enacted on I-80. About $627,000 would be passed on to the shippers, leaving a shortfall of $256,000.
"We have no other choice," he said. "We have to use I-80 to reach our customers."
Ken Holgate of ConWay Trucking, a national firm estimated tolls on I-80 would require a 15 percent increase in freight rates. "We all understand to maintain roads, but we need a better idea than tolling I-80," he said. "The money earned on this road should stay on the road."