Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Dear Mr. Brimmeier...

Joe Brimmeier, CEO of the PA Turnpike Commission, recently took out full-page ads in many local newspapers to print a letter rehashing the PTC talking points regarding the tolling of I-80. I've spent too many newspaper columns addressing this issue already, but I couldn't resist doing a little special edition here in blogland to answer his letter. I'll feel better and I think both my readers will probably forgive me.

Joe's letter asserts "we at the PA Turnpike Commission welcome an open, public discussion based on the facts." It's a nice thought, though the continued insistence that Act 44 is law and Harrisburg intends to pursue implementation aggressively suggests that this will be discussion with no hope of affecting any portion of the outcome. Joe then goes on to provide some critical Act 44 facts.

*Not one dime of I-80 toll money will go to public transit anywhere in Pennsylvania.

Joe, you must realize that nobody believes this oft-repeated statement is anything more than hair-splitting. Tolling I-80 is part of a larger financial plan that includes propping up the flailing transit systems in the 'burgh and Philly. I-80 toll money may not, technically, pay for mass transit, but it will free up other dollars to do so.

*All toll revenue collected on I-80 will be reinvested in Pennsylvania's roads and bridges.

One would hope so.

*Act 44 will generate nearly 2.3 billion annually, on average, to fix and maintain the state's entire transportation network

That would take us back to our first point. If you want us not to catch on to how this works, you should probably keep these two talking points further away from each other.
Tolling I-80 will no more generate revenue than my extension cord generates electricity. What tolling will do is take revenue away from travelers and provide an indirect tax on goods and services to be collected by businesses and paid by customers. Investments generate revenue; tolls are simply taxes, methods to take money away from citizens and give it to government.

*The turnpike will invest 2 billion in I-80 improvements over the next decade, transforming it into our next superhighway...

Which begs the question-- what is it now? The assertion that an improved infrastructure is important to PA economic growth is a sensible one. PA's reputation as a northwestern pothole capitol did not enhance its standing.

But turning it into a state where east-west traffic much either pay a hefty chunk of change or ramble about on non-super roadways is not going to be a major coup, either. I don't think it helps to make the new commonwealth motto "Pay up or else." Nor do I think dragging I-80 down to the level of the turnpike will help (if I were extraordinarily cynical I would wonder if this weren't the PTC's way of putting the kibosh on its cross-state competition).

I can assure you that the public will be heard, and involved, throughout this process.

It's a nice assurance, but really-- can you name any details of this plan that you're not going to make a decision about until you've heard from the public. Is there any portion of the plan that you're looking at and thinking, "Hmm, we'd better wait and see how the public feels about that before we go ahead." Because the impression out here in the cheap seats is that such is not the case.

In fact, beyond the spectre of economic ruin, I think what many people find unattractive about this plan is the manner in which it was adopted-- quickly, quietly, without any public input, and basically as part of hostage demands for the release of the commonwealth budget.

That, in and of itself, creates an impression that nobody involved in this is at all concerned about what may happen to people for whom I-80 is a critical economic lifeline. Fancy and meetings and full-page ads are not nearly enough to change that impression.

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