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Highway Sell-Off: PA plan would let tolls on 95, Blue Route, 422

Pennsylvania private highway legislation is nearing a vote

The campaign to turn America's highways back to private ownership - with electronic tollbooths that will silently tap your bank account as you drive - is accelerating here in the Northeast.

"New York and Connecticut are rolling along with bills and hearings," Frank Rapoport, partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge, one of the law firms pushing hardest for "public-private partnership" sales of state assets to private interests, tells me. "In Pennsylvania, look for a House (of Representatives) bill to hit the Capitol floor on June 6 and move on to passage."

Previous proposals, including House bills sponsored by the current Transportation Committee head, Rep. Richard Geist, R-Altoona, have failed three times. "The bill was reported out of our committee 21-3 March 3" but has since been hung up over prevailing-wage issues, House legislative analyst Greg Grasa told me. Federal contracting rules typically require union-scale wages; but Republicans want them out in case federal law changes, while Democrats want them in for the same reason. Still, Grasa calls the working bill  "a solid, flexible broad-based piece of legislation" that's already been vetted by state transportation officials. "We're very optimistic."

What about New Jersey, where ex-Gov. Jon Corzine's efforts to sell the Turnpike and the Atlantic City Expressway came to grief a few years back?

Gov. Christie's "folks want a bit of education on P3s first," Rapoport told me. To help that effort along, would-be private operators will gather at an event billed as "Meet the Players" at the Trenton Marriott on June 7, including top executives from Veolia Energy, the Union Labor Life Insurance Co., AECOM, Skanska USA, Mott McDonald, Halcrow Inc., along with consultants like Rapoport and Richard Mroz.

Rapoport and his colleauges are handing around lists of key government contacts and motivated contractors, along with lists of the roads most likely to get sold around New York, Pittsburgh and other cities. Their favorite projects targeted for sales and tolls in the Philadelphia area include:

US 422 (from King of Prussia west toward Reading)
I-95 (at the Delaware River and in Philadelphia)
I-476 (Blue Route through Delaware and Montgomery Counties)

Geist's bill won't automatically privatize those roads. It sets up a seven-member committee to review proposals. The Governor and his Transportation and Budget secretaries, House and Senate Democrats and Republicans each name a member. In the House bill each member has to be a construction engiener, lawyer or other expert, not a politician or staffer. But a Senate version (S-344) sponsored by Transportation Committee boss John Rafferty, who represents Pottstown and Coatesville, would allow politicos.