Toll talk could hit barrier

Posted: June 23, 2007

Imagine the new slogan on license plates: "Pennsylvania, Land of Tolls."

The state legislature is increasingly enchanted by the notion of converting free interstates into toll roads as a way to raise money for highway maintenance and mass transit operations.

When the state House reconvenes Monday to tackle transportation funding, there are likely to be new calls for new toll roads. I-80 across northern Pennsylvania. I-81 in eastern Pennsylvania. I-79 in western Pennsylvania. Even Philadelphia's two main interstates, the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) and I-95.

But there are serious federal barriers to widespread tolling on existing interstates that could burst the bubble in Harrisburg.

"There's a lot less of what they're looking for than they seem to think," said Robert Poole, a transportation expert and toll-road advocate with the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank he founded. "They've got to have some reality in this debate."

State House Democrats are pushing a transportation-funding plan that would toll I-80, an east-west route through northern Pennsylvania. Their proposal was debated Thursday night, but did not come to a vote. House Republicans have responded that rural Pennsylvanians should not bear the brunt of tolls, and have suggested a much wider network of toll roads.

"We feel that the users of I-80 alone should not fund the entire transportation system," said Stephen Miskin, a top aide to House Republicans. "Look at I-95 - it's tolled in New Jersey and in Delaware, why not in Pennsylvania? It would provide a way to help defray its own maintenance costs."

Miskin said the Schuylkill Expressway was a less likely candidate for tolls.

"I think that would cause a stir," he said. "We're looking at cross-state roads, not just an internal road."

Rep. Richard Geist (R., Blair), the minority chairman of the transportation committee, said he planned to introduce a proposal Monday to permit a wide range of "public-private partnerships," including tolling of new and existing highways.

Two of Geist's favorite ideas are to toll I-95 around a yet-to-be-built connection to the Pennsylvania Turnpike and to add a new toll lane to the Schuylkill Expressway, either adjacent to or above the existing lanes.

"You would always have the option of being on the Schuylkill parking lot for free or pay to ride the fast lane," Geist said yesterday.

In recent years, the federal government has loosened longstanding rules against placing tolls on facilities built with federal funds. In fact, the Federal Highway Administration has encouraged certain "toll pricing" strategies that vary tolls by time of day or traffic volume.

But there remain specific limits that would make it difficult for any state to convert many existing interstate roads to toll roads.

One federal program, the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program, permits the collection of tolls on three interstates in the country. Virginia and Missouri have taken two of the slots, leaving just one for Pennsylvania or the other 47 states.

This is the program most likely to be available for tolling on I-80, which administration officials have said they are interested in.

Also, there is a federal program that permits the conversion of existing high-occupancy lanes into toll lanes for single-occupant cars. But neither I-95 nor the Schuylkill Expressway, nor most other Pennsylvania interstates, has existing high-occupancy lanes.

Another program would allow tolling on newly built toll lanes in 15 "demonstration projects" around the United States, and another program would allow three toll facilities on each of three current interstate systems to raise funds for building new interstate highways. But few legislators have proposed building new interstates.

Finally, there is a "variable pricing" program that permits 15 states to institute tolls that vary by time of day or traffic load to reduce congestion. Thirteen of those 15 slots are taken.

"It's hard to say what they would qualify for without seeing an actual proposal," said Federal Highway Administration spokesman Nancy Singer.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or


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