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Schuylkill a toll road?

Delco Times | June 22, 2005

What some local politicians called Pa. Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill’s (R-148) "silly" suggestion in February to put tollbooths on state highways to help fund mass transit was looking less silly to the Pennsylvania Senate Tuesday afternoon.

With a SEPTA budget crisis timebomb ticking quietly in the background and federal funding still up in the air, the Senate unanimously adopted a resolution Tuesday to assemble a committee to study the feasibility of expanding tolls on the highway system. In addition, it will investigate what other states are doing with public/private partnerships in transportation that might raise money for maintenance and improvements.

"We are looking at the wide range of issues relevant to transportation," said state Sen. Roger Madigan (R-Bradford), chair of the Transportation Committee.

"It is, I think, a good opportunity to take a look at what other opportunities are out there beyond what we’ve been doing with the gas tax, predominantly.

"Hopefully we can come up with some new and innovative ways to improve our highway system and increase our funding for highways and our entire transportation system."

State Senator and member of the Transportation Committee Dominic Pileggi, R-9, of Chester, said the resolution was a "preliminary step" toward enacting any changes in how transportation in the state is funded.

"I think it’s a great idea to see what’s working and what’s not working in other states and how that could be used in Pennsylvania," he said.

"There’s a number of different concepts covered that I would expect the committee to report back on," said Pileggi, though he expects the report, due by August 15, 2006, will be more broad and conceptual than specific in the ideas it presents.

Once the data in the report has been examined, he said, the state could begin to pinpoint what it wants to investigate and develop further.

While Pileggi also said the report would not focus on any particular roadway, Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Brightbill, told KYW that the committee would be closely examining I-76.

Madigan indicated one option would be to cooperate with private companies to build additional high-speed toll lanes along I-76, one of the most consistently congested highways in the area.

For Madigan, it comes down to the question of a trade-off.

"Are people in a particular area willing to pay for the elimination of congestion, and is there an opportunity for private companies to participate with us?" he asked.

But some are unconvinced such tolls are a good idea, or even feasible.

"Frankly, I don’t see how it would work," said state Rep. Robert Donatucci, D-185, of Philadelphia, who uses I-76 when traveling to Harrisburg. "I really don’t see how they could do it on 76 with (the) traffic problems that are there now.

"Right now, the flow of traffic on 76 stinks, and this will just make it worse."

While Arneson told KYW some of the toll money could be funneled into SEPTA, Donatucci does not see how the funding could be appropriately matched to the problem.

"I don’t see that happening and I don’t think a dollar’s going to do it," he said. "Realistically, it’s going to have to be a buck or two (toll) at most. I couldn’t see that helping SEPTA."

In this, Pileggi agreed. With federal funding in doubt and the needs that already exist just for highways and bridges, he said, there probably wouldn’t be much left in transportation coffers for the struggling mass-transit authority.

"I would have to be convinced that it’s even possible or feasible to have a system on the Schuylkill Expressway," he said, noting there would also have to be an alternative non-toll road.

This was something AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Katherine Rossi also addressed.

"AAA believes that all roads should be toll free," she said. "Where toll roads are utilized, reasonable, alternative toll-free routes should always be available."

AAA’s stance as a general rule is that on already existing highways there should not be any tolls because the taxpayers have already paid for the road.

As for I-76, said Rossi, "The Schuylkill needs significant improvement. It would seem extremely unreasonable to impose any kind of toll on that road."

"Could you imagine putting a toll booth at 30th Street?" asked Donatucci. "Until they get this study done and put it in legislation, I can’t support it."

A recent investigation by PennDOT into a similar toll plan for I-80 showed the cost to be prohibitive, with a financial break-even point decades away.

PennDOT spokesman Gene Blaum said the department has no opinion on the committee at this time, and did not know if it would be tapped for the report.

Madigan, meanwhile, is hopeful the study will come to some fruition and light a path out of the converging transportation fund problems that are increasingly squeezing the state.

"I believe anything we can look at that would include adding revenue to our entire transportation system is very important to look at at this time," he said.

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