Pennsylvania Turnpike and highway officials have renewed efforts to install tolls on I-80 as the clock winds down on the current method of boosting transportation funding around the state.
"We've had preliminary discussions with the FHWA," said Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo, referring to the Federal Highway Administration. "We want to see what they need from us."
Turnpike financial officers yesterday sent $225 million to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to help pay for highway, bridge and mass transit projects. It was the ninth such quarterly payment required by Act 44, a 2007 state law that anticipated tolls would be installed on I-80.
The legislature assumed that higher tolls on the turnpike and new tolls on I-80 would pay for the $900 million-a-year payments from the Turnpike Commission to PennDot. The Turnpike Commission for two years has been borrowing the money to make the payments, hoping to be paid back by those tolls.
But the FHWA did not approve Pennsylvania's request to toll I-80, which runs for 311 miles through northern Pennsylvania. Since I-80 was built largely with federal funding as part of the free interstate highway system, installing tolls requires FHWA approval.
Without tolls on I-80, the transportation funding from the Turnpike Commission will be cut in half to $450 million a year beginning next July. Among the biggest losers would be SEPTA.
Residents, businesses and politicians in northern Pennsylvania have opposed tolls on I-80, contending they would cripple their economy. And they have vowed to continue their fight against the tolls even as state officials resume efforts to get approval for them.
"We are as determined as ever to make sure this doesn't happen," said Jordan Clark, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson (R., Pa.). "I don't see why they think they have a more sympathetic ear with this administration than with the Bush administration."
When the FHWA kicked back Pennsylvania's request to toll I-80 in December 2007, federal officials said the state did not meet the requirement that tolls be used only for I-80 improvements.
And the officials said the state's application did not meet the requirements under a federal pilot program for tolls on interstates "for the purpose of reconstructing and rehabilitating interstate highway corridors that could not otherwise be adequately maintained or functionally improved without the collection of tolls."
The federal officials also questioned how the state could describe as "operating costs" the payments that would be made from I-80 tolls to PennDot to fund transportation projects around the state.
"We do want to address their issues," DeFebo said yesterday, noting that with the election of President Obama, there is new leadership at the FHWA and U.S. Department of Transportation. "We want to see if this is a policy the administration would advocate."
He said that no progress had been made in the initial meeting but that "only in the last couple of weeks have the Turnpike and PennDot tried to re-engage" with the FHWA.