Keystone drama

| December 12, 2008

I-80 runs through the district of U.S. Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., a toll opponent who says the 2005 study stated “all this would be too costly, and the tolls would be too high, the diversion of traffic and business would be too great.” The bipartisan commission’s 2006 final report also recommended the significant streamlining of PennDOT’s administrative systems, particularly with regard to mass transit, before embarking on any new funding scheme – “And of course they didn’t do that,” Peterson says.

Peterson co-sponsored an amendment to an early version of the transportation appropriations bill for fiscal 2008 that forbids any federal funds to go toward tolling I-80. At a toll opposition rally Sept. 24 in Harrisburg, Peterson was joined by representatives from the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and truck stop organization NATSO.

If I-80 can’t be tolled, the governor will fall back on his previous plan to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private operator to offload maintenance expenses, Kilpatrick says. Other options considered by the bipartisan commission, Kilpatrick says, included “the equivalent of a 12.5-cent-a-gallon increase in the oil company franchise tax,” which would hit fuel wholesalers directly and fuel buyers indirectly, “and increases in vehicle registration and driver’s license fees.”

Pennsylvania is not the only guest at the national toll party. Another is Texas, perennially lauded by Overdrive readers as having the best roads in the country. This year is no different; Texas ranks first in more superlative categories than any other state.

You’d think Texas was swimming in well allocated fuel-tax cash, but the state also is quite open about its mammoth toll plans. TxDOT’s “Forward Momentum” report to the 110th Congress advocates significant expansion of state tolling authority as a means of reducing congestion and further funding roads. The Trans-Texas Corridor highway-network project, despite ever-growing opposition from local legislative forces, is becoming a reality, with its I-35-parallel component well into environmental impact stages – it’s been conceived as a network of mostly tolled highways. Peterson’s Capitol Hill counterpart on the other side of the Rotunda is U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who’s leading the Senate opposition to tolling existing interstates. Though Peterson’s FY 2008 appropriations amendment barring tolls isn’t in the current House transportation appropriations bill (the final combined version was still under consideration at press time), Hutchison’s remained in the Senate’s. Both Peterson and Hutchison vow to insert a ban into the 2009 highway reauthorization.

This legislative jockeying is the outgrowth of a crisis long in the making. Fuel-tax revenue is not keeping up with the price of highway construction and maintenance, and improvements are not keeping up with traffic. Fuel prices have risen dramatically in recent years, yet the federal fuel tax has remained stagnant since 1994. The same is true of many state fuel taxes, including Louisiana’s.

“The fact that Louisiana has once again been voted as having substandard interstates is not much of a big surprise,” says Mark Lambert, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. Interstates make up 1.5 percent of the state’s roads but carry 25 percent of its traffic, he says.

I-10 is bad, but not so long ago I-20 in Louisiana was even worse, says independent owner-operator Leslie Whiddon. “I’d see a lot of vans buckling and broken down there,” he says.

The 190-mile segment of I-20 that cuts across the northern part of the state tied for seventh worst in the country. In a repeat of last year, Louisiana’s 274-mile segment of I-10 was named the worst. Like Pennsylvania’s I-80, Louisiana’s I-10 long has placed in the survey’s top five for Worst Segment.

I-10′s Twin Spans over Lake Pontchartrain between Slidell and New Orleans remain closed to full loads, and New Orleans-bound traffic frequently is tied up by almost daily inspections and maintenance on the westbound span.

“We’re making terrific progress on the replacement bridge,” says Lambert of the $800 million, 5.5-mile project. “We are shooting to have part of it online before the hurricane season begins in 2009.” Reconstruction of perhaps the roughest segment of I-10, a 10-mile section near Lake Charles, continues as well, at a price tag of $36 million.

During the last legislative session, the state appropriated a one-time $650 million above the dedicated fuel tax funding, just to cope. “We’re going to spend every bit of it this year,” Lambert says. “The problem is, come July 1, 2008, we’re back where we began.”

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