This week, the federal government handed down its latest ruling on Pennsylvania's efforts to turn Interstate 80 into a toll road. To the surprise of pretty much no one - except maybe the governor and certain lawmakers - the feds said no. Again. They said no to the initial proposal, and now the revised proposal has also been rejected.
The feds' main rationale seems to be that putting tolls on I-80, at least in the way Pennsylvania wants to do it, would violate federal rules because the money from the tolls would be used to maintain roads around the state, not just I-80.
Most of the congressmen from NE and central PA (not sure about Holden, as I-80 doesn't go through his district) opposed tolls on 80. So did a good many of the state lawmakers. But, Rep. John Siptroth (D-189), who represents a section of the Poconos, issued THIS news release which contains dire warnings that the loss of toll revenue will jeopardize several projects and will likely necessitate increases in certain taxes and fees. Duh.
So, what's next? So far, I haven't heard any talk of putting together a third proposal in an effort to get the government to reconsider. Instead, the plan now seems to be calling a "special session" of the state legislature in order to come up with ways of filling a budget gap that was initially filled with fantasy money. As Siptroth pointed out in his news release, options are likely to include increases in the gas tax and in license and registration fees. I also imagine that Turnpike tolls will be increased faster than the current 3% annual rate. The idea of leasing the Turnpike could also end up back on the table.
So, here are my general thoughts. First of all, this whole thing just points up the overall irresponsibility of our state leaders. It's one thing to budget for money, such as tax revenue, that you can reasonably expect to have. It's quite another to budget for money that, by all indications, you have no chance in hell of ever getting. All the past couple years have done is kick the can down the road and delay increases in taxes and fees - which were probably going to happen whether there were tolls on 80 or not, but now they'll probably be more "shocking" because the increases will likely happen all at once rather than over a period of time.
Secondly, I'm slightly alarmed by some of the comments people made to OUR REPORTERS when asked about the rejection of tolls on 80. As expected, drivers who use the highway were pleased that they wouldn't have to pay tolls. They said the tolls would be a "hardship" and that the state could find "some other way." Well, what exactly do they think that other way is going to be? Will the state finally find a way to make money magically appear? No! One way or another, you and I are going to end up paying. We won't pay by stopping at a toll booth. Instead, we'll pay every time we fill up, every time we renew our driver's license, every time we ride the bus. Will paying in those other ways be any less of a hardship than tolls might have been?
Oh, we're going to pay, alright. It's just a question of how and how much.