And now for today's installment of "For Whom the Interstate Tolls."
In our last episode, Gov. Rendell and State Sen. Vince Fumo (D., Phila.) seemed to think their efforts to turn 311 miles of Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania into a toll road would survive congressional efforts to kill the plan.
But one opponent, U.S. Rep. John E. Peterson (R., Pa.), disagrees.
"We're ready to go into Round 2 of a 10-round fight," he said this week.
Peterson and a colleague, U.S. Rep. Phil English (R., Pa.), successfully amended a transportation bill last month to prohibit the use of federal funds for toll booths on I-80. The measure, which could still become conference-committee roadkill, surprised toll supporters, and the outsmarted Fumo questioned the intellectual heft of the two congressmen.
If you're light on economic-impact studies and public hearings to show in support of the I-80 plan, presumably the best defense is a personal attack. The trust-us approach certainly isn't an option when one of the backers, Fumo, faces a 139-count indictment for mail fraud, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and tax charges.
The senator has pleaded not guilty - 139 times - and a February trial date has been set. He is presumed innocent and free to ride shotgun on any revenue-enhancement projects that come down the pike.
Peterson says his efforts are not meant to deepen rural vs. urban divisions, but to focus on one question: Will tolls on I-80 help the state attract and keep businesses, or drive them away?
The congressman believes it's the latter, and he argues that this crucial question was ignored in the rush to make a deal for highway and mass-transit funding.
Former Philadelphia mayor Rendell sees Peterson's objections differently. "What I found most offensive about this was the effort to pit Philadelphia against the rest of the state," Rendell was quoted as saying.
But that's easy enough to fix. If you don't want rural Pennsylvania feeling stuck for funding mostly urban mass-transit systems, and you can honestly say that more toll roads not only raise revenue but are good for businesses and their employees, then don't stop at I-80.
Bring more toll booths to the Southeast.
Face it: The place is loaded with folks who for years have bemoaned the Bush tax cuts but never found a way to send their family's share back to the government. They'll welcome these state fund-raising efforts.
Of course, with shorter roads than upstate - 51 miles of I-95 in Pennsylvania, 25 miles of the Schuylkill, and 211/2 for the Blue Route - the area doesn't have the luxury of spreading "contributions" over 300 miles. And at the current toll rate of 6 cents per mile, drivers won't exit feeling they have done all they can for the commonwealth.
So how about a flat fee of $5 per carload? It's a bargain. For the cost of a mocha-latte-something-something, you can go the distance, from Valley Forge to the Walt Whitman, or just speed to the next exit.
And think of the revenue when you translate PennDOT road-use stats into dollars:
The least-used portion of the Schuylkill handles about 110,000 vehicles daily. Most parts of the Blue Route and I-95 surpass that. The busiest stretch of local roadway, I-676 to Girard Avenue on the Schuylkill, sees about 198,000 drivers daily. At $5 per driver, that one section could produce close to a million dollars - every day. I-80 tolls will never bring in that kind of cash.
And in the unlikely event that state and local governments someday need more revenue for more worthy programs, don't worry. There are other ways of helping local drivers contribute to the betterment of the commonwealth:
Expressway loitering charge. That $5 Schuylkill toll doesn't entitle you to lollygag. Drivers will have 35 minutes on the expressway - ample time to go from end to end - or they're assessed another $5.
I-95 ramp parking fee. Fork over $10 to park on the ramps to Philadelphia International Airport or have your cell-phone service to and from the arrival terminal blocked. Expect an NSA satellite surcharge.
Sublet the Jersey Turnpike. Forget those privatization schemes. Let a neighboring state run your roads. Want to drive 95 m.p.h. without seat belts? Rent a lane for a day. All yours for only 100 grand. (Offer limited to busy, well-off politicians.)
Of course, with great power comes great bureaucracy, so a grander name for the Turnpike Commission will be in order. Perhaps Greater Opportunity for Turnpike Commission Hirings & Acquisitions, and on every toll booth emblazon the acronym: