The Federal Highway Administration vetoed the Commonwealth’s plan to put tolls on Interstate 80 to help fill the potholes in PennDOT’s budget. Since then, ideas on how to accomplish that feat in a different manner have been flying fast and furious. Any plan will mean drivers will pay more. The task of finding $472 million was taken up by three state representatives: Bill Kortz of Allegheny County, Michael O’Brien of Philadelphia, and Scott Conklin of Centre County. Their idea? Tolls! What a welcome to Pennsylvania for drivers.
Their idea is officially called Special Session House Bill 2 or “Gateway Tolling for Transportation Independence Today.” It would have toll plazas constructed at the state lines on Interstates 78, 79, 80, 81, 84, 90, and 95. Traffic entering and exiting would be charged anywhere between $1 for passenger vehicles to $5 for trucks. Residents near the borders could buy a book of tickets at a reduced price to give them a cheaper toll. However, trucking companies based within Pennsylvania would be entirely exempt from paying. The toll booths would be manned by PennDOT, not PTC, employees. They would offer coin-drop baskets as well as E-ZPass gantries equipped with video cameras to capture violator’s license plates who would receive a bill in the mail.
These tolls would basically be a “user fee” paid by those who drive said Interstates, for maintenance of said Interstate. Tolling currently free Interstates whose construction was funded 90% by the federal government is allowed to provide for maintenance, and only maintenance. The plan to toll Interstate 80 would have siphoned money off for other transportation-related projects, which is not allowed. Representative Coklin estimates that between $235 million and $300 million a year could be raised for the Department of Transportation.
The proposal faces two roadblocks: passage by the special session of the Legislature and a stamp of approval from the Federal Highway Administration. Since the proposal would need their approval, the process for implementation could take several years. Therefore, the idea might not provide immediate results.
Interstate 80 turns the big 4-0 this year! For most of those 40 years, politicians have been trying to undo what was done. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act of 1956. It kicked off the building of the Interstates as a system of free, limited-access highways crisscrossing the United States. This happened at a time when building toll roads were all the rage. Pennsylvania was the first to build a long-distance toll road and other states followed our lead.
Once the mainline Turnpike was finished and the Northeast Extension nearing completion, the Turnpike Commission looked to building other extensions. However, Ike stole the PTC’s thunder by putting pen to paper. All of those proposed extensions became the blueprint for the Department of Highways to lay out the Commonwealth’s Interstate System. Without Eisenhower witnessing the German Autobahns first-hand as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in World War II, what we now now know as Interstate 80 would have been constructed as the Turnpike Commission’s “Keystone Shortway.” So the idea of a toll road slicing right through the middle of Penn’s Woods is not a new idea. It’s just made to seem that way.
The exact day of Interstate 80’s completion is marked as September 21, 1970. Once completed, it was obvious that the road offered a shorter route between New York City and Chicago versus going north via the New York State Thruway or south via the Turnpike. Of course it wouldn’t be fair for Pennsylvanians to pay the entire cost of maintenance on the Interstate when most of the users were from out of state and just passing through. The first idea to change the Keystone Shortway into the “Keystone Tollway” came during the Milton Shapp administration in the early 1970s. Nothing happened.
The plan was resurrected in the 1980s when the Turnpike Expansion bill known as Act 61 was signed. Again nothing happened. In the late 1990s, Representative Bud Shuster (yes, Mr. Interstate 99) resurrected the idea because he felt road repairs were due. The proposal was originally rejected by Governor Tom Ridge but in April 1999 he went back; however, again nothing happened as Ridge was tapped to be the first Secretary of Homeland Security.
The idea resurfaced in 2004. Department of Transportation Secretary Allen Biehler told the state House Appropriations Committee then that a series of toll plazas could be built approximately every 30 miles across the state. He added that the feasibility study had been going on for several months and would take another two to complete. PennDOT would just need permission from the Federal Highway Administration to charge tolls. The reason is because federal money was used to build the Interstate.
There is also the question of whether the PTC or PennDOT would be in charge of operations and maintenance. Tolls are one option for raising needed funds to pay for maintenance and possibly widening it to six lanes in sections. One section in particular is from Interstate 81 to the Delaware River. A year later on March 8, 2005, Secretary Biehler told the Senate Appropriations Committee that costs of building toll booths, maintenance facilities, and police stations would exceed $650 million and take years to complete.
A PennDOT study stated it would be feasible to charge tolls over the long run. However, it would take decades to break even and pay off the debt. Biehler said that “it wasn’t a wise move to institute tolls at this time.” State Senator J. Barry Stout of Washington County said he was “a little shocked to see the final conclusion.” As the minority chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, he endorsed the idea of putting ten toll booths, with a $2.50 fare at each, on the Interstate from Ohio to New Jersey. Again, nothing would happen.
The idea seemed to really start gaining traction in 2007 when Act 44 was passed. Under the terms, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission would take over operation of the road and construct ten toll plazas at 30 mile intervals from Ohio to New Jersey. The estimated $946 million/year collected from them, as well as increased fare rates on the mainline Turnpike, would go to fund highway and bridge repairs across the state. Officials continued to push ahead by announcing that the PTC would spend more than $1 billion on improvements to the Interstate over the next few years. They would include repairing bridges, adding truck climbing lanes, upgrading pavement, and extending on-ramps.
On October 16, 2007, the Department of Transportation and Turnpike Commission entered into a 50-year lease agreement for Interstate 80. As part of Act 44, the two agencies filed a formal application with the Federal Highway Administration on October 13 seeking approval to implement tolls.
However, in a letter dated October 17 to Transportation Secretary Allen Biehler and PTC CEO Joseph Brimmeier, chief counsel and acting deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, James D. Ray stated,
On the night of Thursday, November 9, Congress eliminated the amendment to a transportation appropriations bill that would have forbidden putting tolls on free Interstates. That was done at the request of Governor Rendell, Democrats, and Senator Arlen Specter. The two Representatives from along the corridor who added the rider cried foul.
On July 14, 2008, the Turnpike Commission announced its planned $2.5 billion upgrades to the Interstate in the first decade of ownership. The upgrades include building two new interchanges to connect the Interstate with Interstate 99, replacing or resurfacing about 80 percent of the 311 miles, and replacing 60 original bridges.
On August 6, the PTC announced their toll collecting would be much different than that on their other expressways. Instead of traditional toll plazas, Interstate 80 would be the first all electronic toll road in Pennsylvania. It would have E-ZPass readers at nine gantries across the state each costing $60 million to build. Those without a transponder would be sent a picture of their license plate and a bill for their toll plus a $1 processing fee. In both cases much like the 407 ETR outside of Toronto, Ontario.
Those with transponders would also get a free pass at the first gantry, roughly equating to a 60-mile free ride on the road. After that, they would be charged $2.70 at the second and each gantry after wards. This offer would not be extended to most commercial vehicles, including 18-wheelers that account for up to 30% of traffic. However, regular users would be eligible for volume discounts.
Feeling confident and having all their cars in a row, the state resubmitted the plan on July 22, 2008. They expected the decision would take two or three months to decided on phase one approval for tolling Interstate 80. Two months later, the decision handed down was against tolling 80, so yet again nothing would happen.
The story might have ended there. It didn’t as the Commonwealth submitted the exact plan a second time in late October 2009. It came as no surprise to this blogger that on April 6, 2010, yet again the application was rejected. However, this time it seems the Federal Highway Administration finally drove a stake through the plan’s heart. Governor Rendell announced that day that it will not be resubmitted. Therefore, it can finally be said that after 40 years, nothing will happen.
He was more at home in the hallways of Penn State University than on the highways of Pennsylvania; however, Dr. Thomas D. Larson taught the government a lesson while becoming the savior of PennDOT.
Thomas Larson was born on September 28, 1928, in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania. He attended Penn State University where he earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in civil engineering. After Penn State, he attended Oklahoma State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to further his studies. He then entered the United States Navy and served in the Navy Civil Engineering Corps. At the end of his enlistment, he returned to Penn State to be a professor.
In 1968, Dr. Larson co-founded and was named the first director of the Pennsylvania Transportation and Safety Center at Penn State. In later years, it would bear his name. Two years later, he would help create the new Department of Transportation.
In 1979, while at the center, Dr. Larson was tapped by Governor Thornburgh to be Secretary of Transportation. At the time, scandal and fiscal irresponsibility was abundant at PennDOT.
He put PennDOT on a budgetary “diet” after inheriting $2.4 billion in debt from previous administrations, and placed the department on a “pay-as-you-go” basis. With slight increases, the gas tax rose five years in a row. Pennsylvania went from number 50 to number 1 in federal money it received. The debt racked up in the 1960s and 1970s would not have to burden another generation of taxpayers and vehicle owners.
“The department was a disaster when he took over,” said Bill Green, Dr. Larson’s press secretary for three years. “The place was broke. People were going to jail. Maintenance sheds were hiring halls for politicians. There was no sense of planning.”
Dr. Larson promised “a dollar’s worth of service for every dollar collected.” He delivered, and because so, he had bipartisan support in the Legislature and across the state.
He changed the way PennDOT repaired roads. Other than in winter emergencies, they no longer use the “dump and run” patch method, but instead crews square and dig out the hole, then drain, fill, roll, and seal, so the patch doesn’t disintegrate in a day. Dr. Larson ended the “election special” paving projects, with inch-thick asphalt that lasted until the next vote. He placed emphasis on drainage, sealing, and other maintenance procedures still in use today.
His administration solved decades of indecision, controversy, and politics to finish projects such as building Interstates 279 and 579 and rebuilding the Penn-Lincoln Parkway East “from the ground up,” as he said.
As a commissioner of the Turnpike Commission, Dr. Larson advocated raising truck weights from 72,380 to 80,000 pounds gross vehicle weight to aid commerce, and pushing for construction of the Amos K. Hutchinson Bypass and James E. Ross Highway.
After his time as savior of PennDOT, he was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to head the Federal Highway Administration, where he shaped the landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991. In 1992, he returned to Centre County and a year later was named to the board of Michael Baker Corporation.
Dr. Larson passed away in State College on July 20 at the age of 77. His family believes it was due to complications from a head injury suffered in 2004.
We at Pennsylvania Highways offer our deepest sympathies to his friends and family. We also offer our thanks to Dr. Larson for the work he did in the field of transportation. He truly was the savior of PennDOT.
Today I had the honor to be a part of Pennsylvania’s commemoration of the signage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which took place at the Eisenhower National Historic Site in Gettysburg. It was a birthday celebration for the Interstate System. It’s so hard to shop for a highway!
Dignitaries, media, and those who were a part of the re-enactment of the 1919 Army convoy, gathered at the Eisenhower farm. As a result, the original convoy showed a young kid by the name of Eisenhower the necessity of good transportation. Not to mention his time in World War II.
The bus ride from Gettysburg Middle School was a nice jaunt through the historic borough. I sat next to a gentleman from Omaha, Nebraska who was representing Werner Enterprising trucking. He gave me a foam stress reliever in the shape of the familiar Werner 18-wheeler. He mentioned that he had never visited anything in Pennsylvania, but had driven through the state many times. Not surprising considering there are only two routes from New England to the rest of the country that bypass the state.
Once at the farm, we toured the main house, where the Eisenhowers had entertained dignitaries such as Winston Churchill and Nikita Khrushchev. It is a very beautiful and sprawling holding. After everyone had finished taking the tour, it was time for the press conference.
First to speak was Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation, Allen Biehler. After him were Joe Brimmeir, CEO of the Turnpike Commission, J. Richard Capka from the Federal Highway Administration, and Ted Leonard from the Pennsylvania AAA Federation.
After the press conference, I introduced myself to Rich Kirkpatrick, PennDOT’s Press Secretary, who invited me to the event. He praised the work I have done on the website and said it is a great resource. Specifically, he commended my work on the histories of the highways. While we were talking, Secretary Biehler came over to speak with Mr. Kirkpatrick. At that point, I introduced myself and Mr. Kirkpatrick remarked, “This is the guy who does that website.” He gave me an Interstate 50th pin, which is similar to the image below.
While waiting for our bus back to the school, I overheard a man talking about the weather. I introduced myself and he did likewise. He mentioned he was a representative from the Associated Pennsylvania Constructors, which by the way own pahighways.org. I had discovered they owned the .org of my domain once. So, I mentioned that I own the .com. He said, “We know. We tried for the .com only to find you owned it.” Hey, you snooze, you lose.
Back at the school, we had a lovely catered meal. I had the honor to sit at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. While standing in line for lunch, I struck up a conversation with the Director of ODOT, Gary Ridley. I told him that I liked the new Oklahoma route marker, and we began discussing the states that used their outlines for their markers. I also mentioned having been to Oklahoma while storm chasing, and had talked to Gary England of KWTV-TV while researching a paper in college. Mr. Ridley said that Gary helps them with winter forecasts to determine where and when ODOT crews will be needed. The others at the table asked me what organization I was a member. I said, “I do a website called Pennsylvania Highways,” while Mr. Kirkpatrick happened to be walking behind me. He overheard and said, “It is a great website and resource.”
All in all, I enjoyed the event. I was honored that PennDOT even considered inviting me. Many thanks to Rich Kirkpatrick and the PennDOT Press Office. It was indeed a happy birthday for the Interstate System. You know what, it doesn’t look a day over 49! In conclusion, it is ironic to think that President Eisenhower’s farm can not be accessed directly via any Interstate.