CLARION, Pa. - Brent Olson, the balding and soft-spoken general manager of a modular-home factory, is an unlikely Paul Revere.
But here he is, part of a growing revolt across northern Pennsylvania, sounding the alarm: The tolls are coming, the tolls are coming.
"We're really upset. This is going to have a drastic impact on our economy," said Olson, general manager for Commodore Homes, walking across a vast production floor where a small army of carpenters, welders, plumbers, roofers and electricians completes a home every 40 minutes. "I have a sickening feeling about it. We all do."
Olson worries that tolls will increase the cost of his raw materials and the price of his houses, making them less competitive and threatening the jobs of the plant's 250 workers.
Businesses, residents and politicians from the Poconos to the Ohio border are up in arms about plans to put tolls on I-80. And their quickly coalescing rebellion may scuttle the state's new transportation funding law just months after it was hailed as the long-term salvation for highway, bridge and mass-transit funding.
For the Philadelphia region, that could mean a return to the annual game of legislative brinksmanship over SEPTA funding.
Already, Gov. Rendell is looking for other ways to raise the money if I-80 tolls are blocked. Last week, he resurrected his proposal to privatize the Pennsylvania Turnpike, asking potential bidders to submit their qualifications by Oct. 1.
Tolls on I-80 were part of a last-minute compromise put together in June by the state legislature to provide about $950 million a year in new funding for highways, bridges and mass transit, including SEPTA. The financing depends on future toll increases on the turnpike, 4.4 percent of the revenue from the state sales tax, and tolls on I-80.
The law caught northern Pennsylvania unawares. Once the word got out, so did the anger.
"We don't have mass transit here. Why should we pay for it?" asked David Cyphert, chairman of the Clarion County commissioners.
"Trucking companies are going to use secondary roads - U.S. 322 is our main downtown street - and if we have an increase in truck traffic there, people won't want to come downtown to shop," said Tracy Becker, executive director of the Clarion Area Chamber of Business and Industry. "And what's going to happen to our roads?"
Across the state, in Stroudsburg, Bob Phillips, president of the Pocono Mountains Chamber of Commerce, said tourism would suffer. "That's absolutely number one in our economy here," he said. "Let's not make it more difficult for people to come here."
Chris Young, chairman of the Columbia County commissioners in Bloomsburg, fired off a letter to U.S. Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski (D., Pa.) after hearing that Kanjorski supported the tolls in the absence of any other ideas. Why not toll I-95 and I-70? How about a congestion fee in Philadelphia? A national $100 surcharge on new and used vehicle sales? Why not close little-used roads? A moratorium on road construction?
"I brainstormed for 15 minutes and came up with five alternatives," Young said. "Why couldn't a congressman and his staff and PennDot come up with any other idea than tolling I-80?"
The leader of the opposition has become U.S. Rep. John E. Peterson (R., Pa.), a former grocer and state legislator who is challenging the tolls in Congress and vows to take the issue to the White House.
Since I-80 was built largely with federal funding as part of the free interstate highway system, installing tolls requires Federal Highway Administration approval. Peterson talked last week with U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to urge that the department reject Pennsylvania's application to toll I-80.
"How do you do something this big without corridor studies or economic studies?" Peterson said last week, stopping at a restaurant off I-80 for a slice of blackberry pie. He drew a map of Pennsylvania on the back of a placemat and jabbed it with his pen. "Pretty soon, there will just be a big red circle around us, saying, 'Don't go there.' "
Peterson and U.S. Rep. Phil English, a fellow Republican from northwestern Pennsylvania, amended a federal transportation appropriations bill in July to prohibit the use of federal funding to put tolls on I-80. The House approved the bill and sent it to the Senate, where Rendell and other toll supporters expect the amendment to be removed.
So Peterson and the other opponents are pinning their hopes on the Transportation Department to deny the state application or on the legislature to repeal Act 44, the funding law.
Another front in the war was opened Sept. 5 when U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R., Texas) introduced a bill to prohibit the tolling of existing federal highways.
Rendell is taking the opposition seriously; last week he revived his original plan for funding transportation projects - leasing the turnpike to a private operator.
"We're working with the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to implement Act 44, but with all of the attention focused on the number of structurally deficient bridges this summer and the lingering opposition to Act 44, it strikes me as extremely prudent to further explore the public-private partnership possibilities," Rendell said in a statement.
Pennsylvania has about 6,000 structurally deficient bridges, and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has estimated that fixing them would cost $11 billion. The deadly collapse of a Minnesota bridge last month increased the focus on deficient bridges and the cost of repairs.
"We don't want to get caught with nothing to fund transportation," Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said.
The object of all the angst is a 311-mile stretch of highway conceived as a toll road in the 1950s but built as I-80 as part of the free interstate system. Running through the hills and forests through 15 counties of what was once coal and steel and oil country, it is a favorite route for cross-country truckers seeking to avoid the turnpike's tolls.
As many as 73,000 vehicles a day use I-80 through the Poconos and about 30,000 a day near Clarion. Especially in the western part of the state, nearly half the vehicles are trucks.
Those trucks were the lure for state lawmakers. About 80 percent of the trucks are from out of state and seemed an ideal source of revenue.
With tolls comparable to those on the turnpike, a big rig would pay about $150 to cross the state on I-80. Motorists would pay about $25. The state hopes to have toll booths, 10 in all, in place by 2010.
The revenue from tolls on I-80 could be $15 million a month, said Joseph G. Brimmeier, chief executive officer of the turnpike commission.
But along with Act 44 came the law of unintended consequences.
Local leaders fear the ripple effect of tolls: Fewer visitors to the Autumn Leaf Festival in Clarion. Higher costs for power plants. Oversized loads trying to drive through undersized local streets. More expensive commutes for workers and college students. Fewer orders for the vendors who supply cabinets, bathtubs and trimwork to the modular housing makers.
"A lot of our employees are scared. They're worried," said Rick Rathfon, director of sales and marketing for Car Mate Trailers, which employs 115 people making 5,000 to 7,000 trailers a year in Leeper, a small town north of Clarion. Raw materials, such as lumber and steel, come in on I-80, and finished trailers go out on I-80.
"If we have to pass on our costs, inbound and outbound, that could have a serious effect," Rathfon said. "We might have to shut down a [assembly] line or shorten hours."
"We agree with the governor that something has to be done about highways and bridges, but there needs to be some comprehensive look at transportation and not a quick fix," said John Coleman, president of the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County, in State College.
"I-80 is our lifeline," said Brad Ehrhart, executive director of the Clarion County Economic Development Corp., noting its importance to the modular housing industry, with seven plants and 1,200 workers clustered along the interstate. "We understand the need for transportation funding, but why not sit down and look at the impacts?"
"You know the saying, 'Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax the man behind the tree'? Well, we're the man behind the tree."