HARRISBURG - If Washington allows I-80 to be turned into a toll road, most short-distance drivers on the heavily traveled interstate wouldn't pay any fees at all under a plan presented yesterday by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.
By stretching out collection stations and giving local drivers incentives to use E-ZPass, seven out of 10 cars, pickup trucks, SUVs and school buses would be spared tolls.
Under the plan, there would not be toll collectors or even the option to pay cash. Instead, an electronic arch, or "gantry," would be erected over nine toll locations across the 311-mile interstate that would read E-ZPass transponders in what is known as "open-road tolling."
Motorists would pass under the gantries at regular highway speeds, avoiding backups normally associated with toll booths, even those that now take E-ZPass. Cameras would photograph the license plates of cars that do not have E-ZPass, and invoices would be mailed to the owners.
To spare local commuters from paying tolls, drivers who use E-ZPass would get to travel through one toll point free and would not start being charged until they drive through a second gantry.
In most cases, that would mean travelers would have to go 50 or 60 miles before triggering a toll, officials said.
"I think we have designed a system that has addressed a major concern people had about the local driver," Barry Schoch, a commission consultant and manager of the toll project, said at a Capitol news conference yesterday.
It was the first detailed presentation about the proposed toll structure of the interstate that stretches across northern Pennsylvania from New Jersey to Ohio.
Toll rates, officials said, would be the same as those charged on the Pennsylvania Turnpike - 8 cents per mile for cars and 30 cents for trucks. But unlike the turnpike, the new system - which officials described yesterday as the future of toll collection - would be completely automated.
Yesterday, the commission released 20 possible locations for the toll points, and it expects to select the final nine in the fall after reviewing public input.
Transportation officials in New Jersey are exploring a similar cashless-toll system for the Atlantic City Expressway.
Putting tolls on I-80, however, isn't a done deal.
Although the legislature authorized tolls last year as a way to generate needed highway-improvement dollars, it is still awaiting the required approval of federal highway officials.
"This is just another interim step toward the final goal," Joe Brimmeier, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, said of the proposed toll structure.
The public clearly isn't sold on the idea of paying to drive on a road that has always been free.
A poll conducted by Quinnipiac University last week showed that 63 percent of Pennsylvania voters oppose tolls on I-80.
But the poll also found that voters by a similar margin oppose a competing plan to generate new funding for transportation needs - a 75-year, $12.8 billion lease of the turnpike to Pennsylvania Transportation Partners, a consortium headed by a Spanish company.
Soon after the commission wrapped up its presentation yesterday, the consortium blasted the plan for I-80, calling it "highly speculative."
"The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has a 67-year history of over-promising and under-delivering," said Jim Courtovich, the group's senior adviser. "So I-80 motorists shouldn't get too excited about any plan that portends to offer driver discounts."