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For Whom the Road Will Not Toll

Keystone Shortway will remain a free road

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,

As should be clear, FHWA has not granted Pennsylvania the authority to toll I-80.  In fact, now that we have received a formal application, we will conduct a thorough analysis of the application’s merits based on the statutory criteria and determine if the selection of Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania for one of three nationwide tolling pilot authorities is appropriate.  The approval of any application under this program is a discretionary decision.  We will take into account a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, actual or expected competition from other interstate facilities.

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.

Federal Officials Again Reject Tolling I-80 – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

 
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Get Your Kicks on Route 76…276…476

The first major snow and ice storm of the year has hit the Commonwealth. Highway travel across the state was hampered from its wrath. Due to the severity of the storm and its impact, the Turnpike Commission has suspended toll collection on its roadways. So you can get your kicks on route 76…276…476.

Snow cover across the state which led to get your kicks on route 76, 276, 476.
Snow cover across the state (NOAA)

Sections of Interstate 80 and Interstate 81 have had to close due to stranded vehicles. This has led to the inability for PennDOT plow trucks to clear the roadway. However, the worst back-up took place on Interstate 78 which stretched for about 50 miles from Interstate 81 in Lebanon County to PA 100 in Lehigh County. Numerous tractor-trailers began spinning out and jack-knifing trying to ascend a hill on the Interstate near Hamburg. What started out as snow had changed to ice which led to the poor conditions. Around 9 PM on Valentine’s Day, the National Guard began using humvees to deliver food, blankets, and baby supplies to those trapped in the gridlock.

PennDOT began to close down sections of those Interstates this morning to clear the vehicles as well as the snow and ice.  The problem was that motorists were still able to enter the highways at various points, which added to the existing problem.

With the amount of time it will take PennDOT crews to clean up the scenes and get the Interstates back in shape for traffic, they are asking cross-state traffic to use the Turnpike’s mainline and Northeast Extension as alternate routes.

Governor Rendell has declared a statewide Disaster Emergency. As part of that declaration, tolls are waived on the Turnpike. This is the first time since the first day of the collector strike in 2004. So if you are crossing the state, you can get your kicks on route 76…276…476.

Toll Waiving – Disaster Emergency – Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission

 
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