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Putting tolls on the interstates

July 20, 2007

This week the Pennsylvania legislature sent Gov. Ed Rendell a bill that would impose new tolls on Interstate 80 and spend $750 million on a variety of roads, bridges and mass-transit systems.

The Associated Press reports that the funding would come from borrowing against future revenues from tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-80.

The unknown factor here is that the I-80 toll proposal requires federal approval. Because the interstate highways in this region are toll-free, some assumed that such approval might be impossible to get.

Not so, according to the March 2007 edition of "Infrastructure" from the Federal Highway Administration.

According to the publication, by the mid-1950s many of the states had built their own turnpikes in corridors that been designated for interstate highways.

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After a long debate, which included a proposal to build federal highways parallel to state routes, the Federal-Aid Highway Act was amended to authorize the federal Bureau of Public Roads to allow tolls.

If there is any problem with the arrangement, it is that the same addition to the law made it more difficult to get federal maintenance money for toll roads.

In other words, it might not be as easy as it sounds to get federal approval to place tolls on I-80.

It is also likely to revive the idea of placing tolls on Interstate 81, to widen that portion that goes through Maryland.

Once government has found a way to raise revenue, convincing it to resist its use is about as easy as persuading a child with a sweet tooth to stay out of the cookie jar.

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