A tolled and locally managed Route 422 could become an engine for driving large-scale road-improvement projects in the future, state transportation leaders said Monday.
That is, if the plan doesn't stall out before it can begin.
Regional planners made their best pitch before a state advisory panel in Harrisburg on Monday for turning portions of the 27-mile state highway into a toll road. Under the plan, the 11-cents-per-mile access fee would go directly toward funding projects to relieve the highway's notorious rush-hour gridlock.
But as they presented a proposal that has already proved unpopular among some of the roadway's 100,000 daily commuters, some state and local officials - whose support is necessary for a turn toward tolls - indicated they weren't exactly ready to sign on, either.
"Before we ask our citizens to pay more for anything, we need to get spending under control and reexamine our spending priorities," said Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr., whose approval, along with that of his colleagues in Chester and Berks Counties, is critical for enacting a tolling plan.
Gov. Corbett's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission generally took a more appreciative view at Monday's hearing.
In its presentation, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission unveiled the results of an 18-month, $625,000 feasibility study hoping to garner support among committee members.
The proposal calls for tolling only the most heavily trafficked stretch of 422 - between Douglassville and the Route 202 interchange.
Traveling that length would cost up to $2.65 one-way, tracked through overhead electronic transponders that would debit accounts for those with E-ZPass, and photograph license plates and send bills to the registered address for those without.
All revenue collected would be devoted only to 422 Corridor projects such as expanding highway lanes, opening a second bridge over the Schuylkill, and restoring a long defunct regional rail line from Philadelphia to Reading in the hope of luring some motorists off the road.
Within 15 years, the project could raise $1.1 billion in roadway-improvement funds that could save the average driver 20 minutes in commuting time each way, the study estimates.
"In an era where there doesn't seem to be a lot of state dollars available, nor any federal dollars, local tolling may be the best option," said DVRPC board chair Joseph M. Hoeffel III, who also serves as a Montgomery County commissioner.
Although committee members have no direct say on 422's future, advocates of the tolling plan hope their support could help clear the myriad hurdles that must be crossed before they can move forward.
The General Assembly must first pass a bill allowing the creation of local tolling authorities to collect and keep fees charged on their roadways.
Although no state legislators have offered full-throated support for the idea yet, only one - State Rep. Warren Kampf, a Republican whose district in Chester and Montgomery Counties includes some of the most heavily traveled parts of the highway - has publicly opposed the idea.
County officials in Montgomery, Chester, and Berks Counties would also have to team up to create the tolling authority for the 422 corridor. When contacted after Monday's presentation in Harrisburg, they offered opinions on the proposal ranging from cautious to pessimistic.
"There is clearly a problem that needs to be solved," said Commissioner Kathi Cozzone, a Chester County Democrat currently seeking reelection. "Whether or not tolling becomes a part of that solution is really going to depend on what the combined stakeholders decide."
Castor, the Montgomery County Republican commissioner who is also in the middle of a reelection bid, said he still needed to hear planners make their case.
"Tolling is another form of a tax," he said. "When the economy is bad and people are suffering, asking them to shell out more is difficult."
But doing nothing could push back congestion-easing improvements by a decade. State money for road improvements just isn't flowing fast enough, said Ronald Marino, director of Citigroup's public-financing division.
Legislators faced a $475 million shortfall in state transportation funds last year after an attempt to toll I-80 fell through.PennDot has allocated only $243 million to Route 422 improvements over the next eight years.