It started with a cryptic email from the governor's office around 2:15 yesterday afternoon. At 3PM, it said, Gov. Rendell would have an important announcement to make. What could it be, we wondered in the newsroom.
As it turned out, we didn't have to wait until 3PM to find out. At approximately 2:50PM, a news alert from the Asociated Press alerted us to the news: No tolls on Interstate 80. The Feds put the kibosh on the plan.
At approximately 3:01PM, we received an email from PENNSYLVANIA TRANSPORTATION PARTNERS, the Spanish-led consortium that is pushing the Rendell-favored rival plan to lease the Turnpike. That email contained a news release which read, in part:
HARRISBURG (September 11, 200 – With the Federal Highway Administration today rejecting an application to add tolls to Interstate 80, the proposed lease of the Pennsylvania Turnpike remains the best option to fill the resulting transportation funding gap in Act 44, according to Pennsylvania Transportation Partners (PTP) – the Citi-Abertis consortium that is the preferred bidder to lease the Turnpike. The Turnpike lease would generate a minimum of $21.6 billion for Pennsylvania’s transportation infrastructure – including an historic $12.8 billion up-front payment, nearly $5.5 billion in Turnpike improvements, and up to $4.2 billion in taxes paid.
Former Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Howard Yerusalim, who in his capacity also served as Chair of the Turnpike Commission from 1987 to 1995, said lawmakers should approve the lease proposal when they return to Harrisburg next week.
“For the eight years I was Chairman of the Turnpike Commission, I was constantly frustrated by my lack of control over the role politics played in decision making at the Turnpike,” said Yerusalim, who now serves as an advisor to PTP. “In the absence of I-80 tolling, legislators should be cautious of any new scheme the Turnpike Commission comes up with.
Frustration? Scheme? Them's fightin' words!
For it's part, the Turnpike Commission has STRAIGHT TALK, a section of its website where it expounds on the hell that will likely befall us all should PTP be allowed to lease the Turnpike. You may have also noticed a PR effort on behalf of the Turnpike commission. Some recent commercials promote EZ Pass and are generally designed to make the PTC seem all warm and fuzzy and ready to turn I-80 into a nice, smooth toll road.
What's next? Who knows. I'm not convinced that the idea of turning I-80 into a toll road is completely dead. It seems like the reason the feds rejected the plan is because of some sort of technicality involving money (THIS article may help explain). So, I won't be surprised if the PTC reworks its figures and resubmits the plan.
I'm also not convinced that the plan to lease the Turnpike is now a sure thing - at least not as the plan stands now. Specifically, there are quite a few people who don't feel that the bid is high enough. The PTP may also have to rework its figures for the plan to gain any serious traction with lawmakers.
Buckle up. Itt looks like abumpy ride.