Thursday, November 08, 2007

Interstate 80 Toll-- Bad for Pennsylvania

(News-Herald, November 8) I write these a few days ahead of time; as I type this it is Tuesday night. On my tomorrow, the commonwealth will have the first of its “informational” meetings about the genius-free plan to toll I-80. To you, that’s yesterday, and so I expect that somewhere in this newspaper is cogent, reasonable coverage by a real journalist. But some issues demand examination by someone who’s not balanced, fair or reasonable, and that’s when it’s time for me to step up to the plate.

I want to believe that these meetings will bring more information to the issue, but I’ve been following what the suits in Harrisburg have to say, and I’m not encouraged.

The turnpike commission has a website responding to Frequently Asked Questions about Act 44 (they always use language meant to remind us that this is a done deal, a passed law, and they’re doing us a favor by even pretending to discuss it with the public). The responses, which I suspect will become a familiar refrain, are not encouraging.

For instance, one question is “Why did you turkeys rush this through without actually talking to any of the Pennsylvanian citizens that it will affect?” (I’m paraphrasing a bit). The answer begins, “The Legislative process is an inherently public process. Bills are proposed and debated in both houses in public sessions; votes are cast in public and widely reported and documented….” And spends another paragraph not answering the question. The PTC is going to begin a “public outreach program.” “The impacts of tolling will be studied and presented to the public.” I believe it translates roughly into “We are hoping to have meetings until you give up and go away.”

There’s the continuing double-talk from the office of Joseph G. Brimmeier. I don’t know much about Brimmeier other than he seems to get testy about being challenged on this mess. His official biography boils down to a thirty-year career as a Commonwealth bureaucrat.

Brimmeier keeps insisting that all of the money made by tolling I-80 will go to I-80. I am not a professional bureaucrat, but as best I can piece it together, it would seem that this is kind of a fib. They’re going to borrow a lot of money to fix infrastructure everywhere across the state (that would include urban mass transit), pay that back with money from toll collection, and then once that’s done, every cent goes to I-80. Act 44 itself estimates that the debt should be paid down sufficiently by the 2024-2025 fiscal year. No, I didn’t make a typo there.

In other words, “Mom, I don’t want to borrow five dollars for a Whopper. I want it to pay back Billy. He lent me five dollars to buy a Whopper.”

Not that the use of toll money for the grossly mismanaged Philly and Burg transit systems is the most important reason to oppose the toll. That’s an argument we’re going to lose. I don’t know the numbers, but my guess is that the gas tax revenue generated by gazillions of urban drivers travel well beyond big-city borders.

When we argue that the worst thing about the toll is that it will hurt us rural NWPA folks, we’re being shortsighted. When the city folk agree with us (and suggest that’s a not-very-bad “worst thing”), they’re being stupid.

The PTC argues that toll costs will not be severe, that I-80 tolls will be right in line with the turnpike tolls, where a cross-state trip by car is “only” $25 or $100 by truck. This is the reasoning of people who don’t drive themselves on vacations. Worse, it’s the reasoning of people who never worked in an industry where even a five cent increase in the cost of a unit has a significant impact.

Tolling I-80 is bad for everybody, because it is one more nail in the PA border sign that says, “Businesses not welcome.” Toll is not good news for the PA economy, and jamming it through in an eleventh hour session with the state budget held hostage says something ugly about how we do things in the commonwealth.

Infrastructure A) matters and B) is not free. But this approach to the problem, generated by a governor pouting about being denied his Plan A, has been wrong every step of the way.

One more Fun Fact. On/off ramp toll booths are not planned for I-80; instead there will be every-so-often booths right on the highway. Placement of these will be critical, as that will mean that some areas will be able to make local trips with no toll cost. Other areas get local roads clogged with toll avoiders. Which means, if nothing else, the battle for the placement of those booths should generate even more political fireworks in Harrisburg.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

I had heard about this a while ago. Unfortunately, all this will effectively do (for this particular area) will add too much traffic to Route 322. I'm not so enthusiastic about 322 being clogged with large trucks, to be honest...

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