U.S. Rep. Phil English wants opponents to send letters to his offices.
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR PENNSYLVANIA BUREAU
GROVE CITY, Pa. — Monday night’s meeting to gauge public support of the plan to place tolls on Interstate 80 is nothing more than a sham, according to one federal lawmaker.
“The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is simply going through the motions. They should have done these hearings before the bill was passed,” said U.S. Rep. Phil English of Erie, R-3rd.
The public has been invited to attend a public information session tomorrow night at Grove City College, the last of a series of meetings the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has held across the state to explain plans for placing tolls on the 311-mile stretch that spans across the state.
“This is an attempt to have little rallies to stir up support. I think the bureaucrats in Harrisburg have discovered they have awakened a sleeping lion,” English said of the opposition.
The Pennsylvania Legislature last summer allowed the state turnpike commission to lease I-80 from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and collect tolls to pay for it. Over the next 50 years, it is expected to raise $116 billion to bridge a transportation funding gap in the state. That money, along with increased fees on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, are to be used statewide for transportation costs, according to Carl DeFebo, spokesman for the turnpike commission.
However, opponents of the plan, who include English and all state elected officials from the Shenango Valley, have complained that the money raised through I-80 tolls will be used to fund mass transit in Philadephia and Pittsburgh.
Turnpike officials claim all money collected on I-80 will be reinvested into roads and bridges across the state. The money used to pay for mass transit in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia will come from increases to tolls on the turnpike, Interstate 76, and loans taken out by the turnpike commission.
Turnpike officials say they expect toll rates to match those on the turnpike, which are expected to be 8 cents per mile for cars and 30 cents per mile for trucks, by 2010. That would result in a cost of $25 for a car to cross the state on I-80 and $100 for a truck.
But before any of that can happen, the state must receive federal approval of the tolls.
English thinks the chances of federal approval are slim and encourages opponents to send letters opposing the plans to his offices, and he will deliver them to the Federal Highway Administration.
The state has applied for the tolls under the FHA’s Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program. The program allows three existing Interstate highways, bridges or tunnels to be tolled to raise money for those facilities that could not otherwise be adequately maintained or improved without that money, according to the FHA Web site. None of the three spots have been awarded by the FHA.
English does not think the plans to put tolls on I-80 fit the guidelines outlined by the federal government for tolling roads under this category.
“This is not about alleviating congestion or improving conditions on Interstate 80. It’s not about experimenting with tolls. It’s just about reassigning huge amounts of money to plug into a hole the Harrisburg bureaucrats refuse to fill [in other ways],” English said.
While English feels Monday’s meeting is not worth attending, local state lawmakers are encouraging their constituents to attend and voice their opinions.
In fact, the state delegation from the Shenango Valley sent out a press release last week stating that the meeting conflicts with voting sessions in Harrisburg and they will not be able to attend. But, they later determined they could offer comments through videotape.
State Rep. Mark Longietti of Farrell, D-7th, said the public comment meetings are part of the federal requirements before a decision on tolls can be made. Longietti said he was told there will be a second round of public comment meetings after the turnpike commission identifies where the tolls will be located.
Longietti encourages those who oppose making I-80 a toll road write to the Federal Highway Administration in Washington, D.C. as well as attend the meeting.
“The Federal Highway Administration has to approve this plan and part of that application asks what public support there is for the proposal,” he said.
Before the FHA grants or denies permission, the turnpike commission must complete several studies of the impact tolls would have on the roads and on diversion of traffic off the toll road and studies on the environment and economy.
Skip Doutt, vice president of Yourga Trucking Inc. in Wheatland, Pa., has opposed the tolling of I-80 since it was first proposed earlier this year by the Pennsylvania Legislature. He was among a group of local trucking operators who came out to support English, who vowed last summer to stop the tolling plans by blocking federal approval.
Doutt’s company sends 25 to 30 trucks a day onto Interstate 80 to deliver metal products across the east coast.
Now he’s hoping that attending Monday’s meeting at Grove City College will help stop the plans which will likely mean higher costs to his customers if tolls are placed on I-80.
“We are going to express our opinion,” he said.
Public meetings have already been held in Clarion, Clearfield, Bellefonte and DuBois, and nearly every speaker has expressed misgivings about the proposal.
Turnpike spokesman DeFebo said the purpose of the statewide meetings is to gauge public concern for the project as well as educate people of the turnpike’s tolling plans.
He said those who have attended the first four meetings were not supporters.
“Certainly there is a lot of opposition. Most of those who attended oppose it,” he said.