Trying to blunt growing opposition to tolls on Interstate 80, the Pennsylvania Turnpike chief yesterday promised that no revenue from that road would be used to fund mass transit.
Joseph G. Brimmeier, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, said a clause would be written into a lease with the state Department of Transportation, directing that all money raised from I-80 be spent on highway projects around the state.
Under terms of a new state law, the turnpike commission is to lease I-80 from PennDot and place tolls on the interstate as part of a plan to raise about $965 million more per year for highways, bridges and mass transit.
The lease must be signed by Oct. 15.
The state's mass-transit agencies, including SEPTA, are still expected to receive the $410 million more per year over 10 years, as planned. That money will come from other sources, including higher tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, sales tax receipts, and money borrowed by the turnpike commission.
The draft language of the lease of I-80 establishes a Public Transportation Trust Fund into which all payments for mass transit must be deposited; Section 11.5 of that draft agreement states: "No portion of such rent [generated from I-80 toll revenues] may be deposited in the Public Transportation Trust Fund."
Brimmeier said opponents of I-80 tolls have been "fear-mongering" about residents and businesses along the rural I-80 corridor subsidizing mass transit in urban areas, especially Philadelphia.
"None of the tolls from I-80 will be used for mass transit. None," Brimmeier said yesterday. "First, the money will be used to fix and reconstruct I-80 and then for other rural roads and bridges."
The leader of the opposition to tolls on I-80, U.S. Rep. John Peterson (R., Pa.), said Brimmeier's promise changes nothing.
"The tolling is going to devastate the economy of Pennsylvania, period," Peterson said yesterday. "Companies in the state are petrified about what this will do to them."
Tolls on I-80, scheduled to be installed by 2010, were part of a last-minute compromise put together in June by the state legislature to provide about $965 million a year in new funding for highways, bridges and mass transit, including SEPTA. The financing depends on borrowing by the turnpike commission, future toll increases on the turnpike, 4.4 percent of the revenue from the state sales tax, and tolls on I-80.
Businesses, residents and politicians all along I-80, from the Poconos to the Ohio border, are upset about the prospect of tolls. They are seeking to repeal the new state funding law, Act 44, and to create federal prohibitions against placing tolls on interstates that are now free.
With the growing opposition to tolls on I-80, Gov. Rendell last month revived his proposal to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private operator to raise billions for transportation funding. On Monday, he received 14 submissions from American and international firms, offering their bona fides to run the turnpike.
Peterson, a frequent critic of Rendell, said he would "absolutely" support the governor's plan to lease the turnpike.
After beating back Rendell's first attempt to lease the turnpike and gaining legislative approval to impose tolls on I-80, the turnpike operators are not happy with the renewed efforts to lease the turnpike.
The turnpike commission was created by the legislature 70 years ago; it is run by five commissioners, including the state secretary of transportation and four commissioners appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
Brimmeier said yesterday the state should not "give up an asset like the Pennsylvania Turnpike." He said the current funding law would provide $116 billion over 50 years for transportation projects, without losing control of the turnpike.
"Nobody wants to pay for anything," Brimmeier said. "But people have to realize they have to pay for the infrastructure they need. . . . If somebody has a better plan, I'd like to hear it."
In Congress, 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, which last month passed a version of the bill without the Peterson-English amendment, but with a similar amendment to prohibit tolls on a Texas interstate.
The House and Senate are now trying to resolve their differences on the bill in a conference committee.