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Pennsy I-80 toll plan merits attention of Tri-State citizens

June 29, 2007

A plan by Democrats in the Pennsylvania House to charge tolls on Interstate 80 bears close watching by Tri-State-area residents. If Pennsylvania can add tolls without turning I-80 and nearby roads into a gridlocked mess, it could be a blueprint for action in this region.

The House bill passed on a 105-96 vote Wednesday and its supporters told The Associated Press it could yield $720 million in 2008 for new funding for roads, bridges and mass transit.

There are a few hurdles to overcome, however.

· The federal government must approve the idea, which lawmakers say could delay implementation for two years.

· To avoid placing a burden on drivers making local trips, sponsors envision placing toll booths where I-80 enters Pennsylvania.

· Attempting to exempt in-state drivers could prompt a legal challenge from truckers.

The other possibility is that to avoid the tolls, truckers would switch to local roads, then re-enter I-80 down the road. Of course, such maneuvers would add to traffic counts, noise and air pollution on local roads.

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This proposal is of interest to those in the Tri-State area because both Maryland and Pennsylvania are trying to figure out how to affordably widen Interstate 81 from four to six lanes.

In 2004, Robert Flanagan, then Maryland's transportation secretary, said that the 12-mile stretch of I-81 that runs through Maryland would only be widened if it were converted to a toll road to raise the estimated $500 million it would cost.

In February of this year, Pennsylvania state Sen. Terry Punt, R-Franklin, reported that a feasibility study of widening two sections of I-81 is done, but that work on the $1.5 billion project is years in the future.

As local officials have found out on a variety of road projects - the U.S. 40/Edgewood Drive intersection, for example - delay only escalates the costs.

Whether tolls are the answer to this need for funding probably will depend on whether the federal government is ready to allow states to charge tolls on the interstates - and if so, to not take too big a share for the U.S. Treasury.

During a campaign stop here in 2006, Gov. Martin O'Malley wasn't thrilled about the idea of tolls, but said he would consider all options.

When considering what to do, we recommend that state officials not forget that pondering the possibilities for too long could increase project costs substantially - again.

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