Pennsylvania has had an ambitious infrastructure rebuilding in the works for the last several years. Old bridges would be torn down and rebuilt, highways would be resurfaced, and the state’s mass transportation systems would be modernized. At least that was the plan.
Alas, the funding for most of these plans was dependent on tolling I-80, an interstate that runs east to west along the state’s northern corridor. Pennsylvania could not start tolling the road without the federal government’s permission, and recently the answer no
came back for the third — and now realistically — final time. So while they scramble for new ways to fund these projects — higher gasoline taxes look real good right now — we should examine the pros and cons of this debate.
Pennsylvania knew that tolling this road was always a long shot, given the fact that they planned to use the funds for projects beyond I-80 — in violation of the federal government’s requirements that any tolls be used exclusively for the maintenance of the road. In addition, the legislators and residents living along the corridor fought the proposal tooth and nail believing in a number of doomsday scenarios that would have made Chicken Little cluck with pride. Oh, they cried, it would drive up the prices of transporting goods through our area! Oh it will bring on unemployment! Oh we’ll be paying to drive on our road just to subsidize mass transit in the big cities! Oh, oh, oh!
The state transportation agency, PennDOT, went to great lengths to patiently explain their rationale. It is my understanding that the state wished to capture revenue from the long distance haulers that run through the state to get to other parts of the country. With a few exceptions, most carriers have to cross Pennsylvania at some point to get their products to market. Tis the burden of being the Keystone State.
The tolls would most likely have not resembled the system along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where you get a ticket at one end and turn in the ticket and money as prescribed on the card at the other end. This process involves the placement of permanent toll plazas and manpower to collect tolls and maintain the plazas. I doubt very much that the state would have duplicated this on I-80, since such an undertaking would result in a massive, intensive building project which would take billions of dollars and years to build. In this case, Pennsylvania didn’t have the money or the time.
I’m guessing that the state envisioned coin collecting baskets at various points along the road, much like the Dulles Toll Road in northern Virginia. Also, the state plan only called for tolls collections at 11 of the 40 or so exchange points on the route. In other words, there would have been vast stretches of the road that would not be subject to the tolls. Many locals living near the route who were dependent on it to get around more quickly would never have to worry about paying any tolls. The Chicken Littles in the local media outlets and chambers of commerce downplayed this point of the proposal.
There might have been some truth to the argument that tolls would have driven up prices in the local area for goods and services. If this is so, then the possibility might also be true that wages would have risen
as well. I think this is what scared the local business leaders more than the idea of tolls themselves. A higher standard of living could have resulted for most people living along I-80 corridor. Oh no! We can’t have that!
Then there was a possible indirect environmental impact on the area, which no one even considered. Let’s bring Chicken Little back in to present this extreme argument: “Well, no tolls on I-80 would mean no money for mass transit in cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. No funding for those systems might mean they would go out of business, which means the people living in the suburbs would have to use their cars more, which would put more carbon monoxide in the air. Since weather travels west to east then the car smog from Pittsburgh would hover over those counties served by I-80, endangering the lives of the residents who selfishly railed against the tolls. Oh dear. The air would be harder to breathe...wheeze...and ailments like asthma would increase...cough, hack...and...remember Donora*...cough, cough, aggghhhh!!!”
Oh dear! It appears that we have killed off Chicken Little!
I’m ambivalent about tolls on I-80, even though I’m sure I would have had to pay them every time I traveled to visit my mother. I’m not crazy about paying on any highway, but I am realistic. I know that it takes money to maintain nice, smooth roads that won’t destroy the wheel alignment on my car, and I know that any road work is not accomplished with the wave of a magic wand from the roadway fairy.
Others, unfortunately, don’t realize this even though they too want nice smooth roads. They are happy to use the roads, just as long as they aren’t the ones that have to pay for it. Go figure! These people need to learn the concept of the word “commonwealth” as in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and (coincidentally) most of these people live near I-80.
My advice to all: get used to gasoline pump prices over $3.00 a gallon and invest in breathing masks! Roast chicken anyone?
*Look Donora up in Wikipedia, kiddies!(Thank you for reading. Please remember life has a habit of reaching back and biting us in the ass!)