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Turnpike lease back on the burner

With I-80 tolls up in the air, Gov. Rendell returns to a previous transportation fund-raising scheme.

HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell, citing drawbacks of a state plan to collect tolls on Interstate 80, said yesterday that he hopes soon to publicize how much transportation funding could be generated by leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Rendell said there is no assurance that the Federal Highway Administration will approve the state's application to collect tolls on I-80.

"I don't consider the federal government's . . . decision a slam dunk by any means," Rendell said after attending an unrelated public event in Hershey. "It could go either way."

Besides, he said, people do not like the idea of adding tolls to an existing road - and the I-80 tolling plan has drawn heated opposition from people in the northern half of Pennsylvania who say it will damage the local business climate.

To date, the Rendell administration has received no firm bid from a private company on how much it would pay for a long-term operating lease of the 359-mile turnpike. But Rendell has maintained that such an agreement could mean more money for the state's beleaguered highways, bridges and mass-transit systems than a plan approved by the legislature in July.

That plan, Act 44, is supposed to produce $750 million this fiscal year by adding tollbooths to I-80 and raising toll prices on the turnpike beginning in 2009. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission would supply the money right away by borrowing it and repaying it later out of the increased toll revenues from the two highways. Every year the funding would rise, reaching $1 billion in seven years.

Rendell signed the plan after his idea to lease the turnpike picked up few supporters in the legislature. He said he hopes by the end of February to show the legislature the results of bids to lease the turnpike.

"If it's significantly more than what's been bid under Act 44 and will remove the I-80 problem . . . I would prefer to do the leasing of the turnpike," he said.