Keystone drama

| December 12, 2008

Pennsylvania continues to impress Overdrive’s Worst Road respondents with an improved I-80. Will tolls be the price to pay to finish the massive job?

A perennial Worst Road contender in Overdrive’s annual Highway Report Card survey is like the black sheep of the family who gets his act together only to stab you in the back. We’re talking about I-80 in Pennsylvania, improved but still struggling – and back in the spotlight, as the commonwealth attempts to toll the road as part of a federal pilot program for tolling existing interstates.

“Tolls on I-80 are a big problem,” says Ohio owner-operator Charles Harrell, leased to Greentree Transportation, who named I-80 in Pennsylvania as the nation’s most improved highway. “They’re improving it with our tax dollars and turning around and charging you again for the privilege.”

By lauding I-80 for several years now – ranking it second this year for Most Improved, for example – Overdrive readers seem to support the contention of toll opponents that the road doesn’t qualify for tolling under federal law because it’s not in bad enough shape.

Independent owner-operator Jon Phillips voted Pennsylvania’s I-80 the best road in the nation. “As far as traveling and rest stops, it is the best,” he says. Interstates elsewhere, such as West Virginia, have a scarcity of truck stops close to the exits, but I-80′s peppered with them, which makes the haul easier, he says.

But I-80 also tied this year for second worst, showing that however much progress has been made, there’s still a long way to go. And Pennsylvania is the all-time worst offender in the Overdrive survey, topping the Worst Roads category for 12 of the survey’s 17 years.

For the second year in a row, though, the Keystone State placed second behind Louisiana, which still is suffering the damage of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Act 44, which would toll I-80, made its way through the Pennsylvania Legislature in July. Gov. Edward Rendell and the state Turnpike Commission say Act 44 is the best way to close the $1.7 billion yearly funding gap for transport infrastructure that Rendell’s bipartisan Transportation Funding and Reform Commission identified last year.

I-80 isn’t the Pennsylvania’s only construction problem, of course. Since the Minneapolis I-35W bridge disaster in August, Pennsylvania’s structurally deficient bridges have been the focus of a statewide “rallying cry,” says Jeff Kitsko, operator of, a website devoted to the state’s major roadways. Pennsylvania has the largest number of structurally deficient bridges in the nation, says Richard Kilpatrick, press secretary for the state Department of Transportation.

I-80 alone is an annual $80 million drain on PennDOT’s budget, though PennDOT’s 2005 study of the tolling issue concluded this wasn’t a disproportionate amount for upkeep. In fact, says Barry Schoch of Philadelphia engineering firm McCormick Taylor, project coordinator for the Turnpike’s I-80 toll conversion, “we’d need more like $135 million yearly to keep pace” with what he deems is really needed to keep the road viable.

Tolling the interstate would take it out of Pennsylvania’s annual budget wrangles, Schoch says. “We’d be able to accelerate a lot of the improvements and make sure the work they’ve done already gets finished and lasts.”

The truck tolls would start out around $100 for the entire 311 miles, Schoch says, making high-toll hauls of both major east-west lanes through Pennsylvania – the other being I-76, a.k.a. the turnpike.

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