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Crowd speaks out on I-80 tolls



Published: Tue, November 20, 2007 @ 2:00 a.m.

Moving locally made

oversized loads would be impossible with toll booths.

By LAURE CIOFFI

VINDICATOR PENNSYLVANIA BUREAU

GROVE CITY, Pa. — Of the dozens who got up to speak at the final public meeting of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s public session about putting tolls on Interstate 80, not one had a favorable thing to say.

In fact, many in the crowd of more than 100 were wearing bright stickers with the words “I-80 tolls” with a slash line over them akin to the symbol made famous in the “Ghostbusters” movies.

The tone of the comments didn’t surprise Frank Kempf, lead engineer with the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, who fielded questions along with Tom Caramanico, president of McCormick Taylor Engineering in State College, Pa., a firm hired by the commission to work on the project.

“People are not in favor of this and we understand that. We are trying to get down to what the local issues are,” said Kempf.

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. That money, along with increased fees on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, are to be used statewide for transportation costs, though opponents say most of that will be spent in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The toll plan must be approved by the federal government before it can take effect.

Monday night’s meeting did open the engineers’ eyes to problems that toll booths will cause beyond their obvious economic impact.

Joe Simko of Hodge Foundry in Greenville said his company regularly uses I-80 to transport its large steel castings to York and Allentown, Pa. These castings are so large, they could never fit through any toll booth, Simko said. (The locations of the toll booths haven’t been determined.)

Chuck Montgomery of Montgomery Trucking in Grove City said his company already pays the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation $1,000 per truck to enable it to transport oversized loads on any PennDOT road, which now includes I-80, without applying for special permitting. He’s worried that the turnpike commission will “double dip” by charging more fees.

“Do you intend to tax us twice? Why should we pay you again?” Montgomery said.

While trucking companies were well represented at Monday’s meeting, held at Grove City College, there were plenty of average citizens who use the road frequently who were concerned too.

Debbie Shaulis of Mercer, Pa., said she’s part of a dedicated group of animal rescue volunteers who use I-80 to transport homeless animals to new homes.

“That would be another expense for a volunteer. It’s going to cut down on the number of volunteers,” she said.

Others such as Eric Graven of Hermitage, Pa., questioned if the state officials have even looked into how much traffic will be diverted from the interstate to local roads and the increased risks involved.

“What level of fatalities do you find acceptable for this type of money?” Graven said of the expected windfall the state transportation budget will get from the tolls.

And business owners who employ hundreds of people who use I-80 every day just to get to work say the tolls will amount to a pay cut for their employees.

Phil Gasiewicz, retired chief operating officer of United State Investigation Services, said the company employs more than 800 people in its Grove City offices, with many driving from as far away as Youngstown and Clarion, Pa.

“You will be taxing them and they have no one else to pass it on to. There’s no subsidy for the woman who makes $18,000 a year as a clerk and she’s working to raise two kids,” Gasiewicz said.

Richard Beech, chief executive office of George J. Howe Co. in Grove City, agrees.

“It lays an imminent and tremendous burden on thousands of businesses, tens of thousands of workers and millions of consumers. These companies, their employees and their customers are already weighed down by high energy costs, rapidly rising health-care expenses, a housing recession and the shrinking buying power of their paychecks,” he said.

Kempf said they expect to have more public meetings this winter after the locations of the toll booths are determined.

cioffi@vindy.com


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