July 28 — HARRISBURG — Technically, Gov. Tom Corbett’s transportation funding commission will not recommend new tolls, but the specter of tolls on state roads and interstates in the next decade is clearly present in its final report to be submitted Friday to Corbett.
“Tolling is not something that is going to happen immediately, but is it one of the possible solutions long term? Sure it is,” said state Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch, commission chairman. “It doesn’t mean that we would do any tolling; we’re not recommending any tolling.”
But Corbett’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, which was tasked with finding more than $2.5 billion annually for transportation infrastructure projects, will suggest that the Legislature pass "enabling legislation" to provide the groundwork for tolls on state roads at a later time.
The enabling legislation is a suggestion not included among the commission’s official revenue-generating recommendations. The report lays out a plan for generating $2.7 billion in new revenue during the next five years from other sources, and the commission did not address specific roads or tolling projects.
Among the report’s recommendations are increasing driver’s license and vehicle registration fees and uncapping a portion of the state’s gasoline tax as well as changing how the state pays mass transit agencies. The Legislature and governor would have to approve these recommendations before they can go into effect.
The difference between those plans and new tolls on Pennsylvania roads is as subtle as the difference between suggestions and recommendations.
Schoch said tolling is a long-term solution to deal with likely cuts in federal transportation spending.
Pennsylvania could see its federal funding cut by as much as $500 million because of some proposals in Washington, D.C., for a new transportation authorization spending bill. If that happens, Schoch said, the state must have alternatives. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation received more than $1.5 billion from the federal government last year.
“I don’t know what the federal government is going to do, but we can’t be unprepared,” Schoch said.
The enabling legislation being suggested by the report would make it easier to toll roads.
Ted Leonard, president of the Pennsylvania AAA Federation, which represents the interests of drivers, said the organization would support the enabling legislation, but it would have to consider each specific tolling plan.
“I don’t think we got into any specifics of tolling any specific highways, but I think that is something that will have to be looked at,” said Leonard, who was also a commission member. “I don’t think there is any doubt in anyone’s mind around this table that additional funding is needed.”
The Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, which represents trucking companies in the state, supports the higher gasoline taxes and registration fees but does not endorse additional tolling, said Jim Runk, association president.
“We’re not opposed to toll roads, but we’re opposed to tolling existing roads," Runk said. “You can divert around the toll road, and that’s what we don’t want. We don’t want people going on roads they shouldn’t be on.”
Interstates and state roads could be tolled, but no specific projects are being discussed or recommended at this time. The commission had reviewed a potential tolling plan for state Route 422 in the Philadelphia suburbs, but that was only an example and not a specific proposal, members said.
The federal Department of Transportation would have to sign off on tolling for interstate highways and state-maintained roads, but the bar is considerably higher for interstates, as Pennsylvania found out the hard way when trying to place tolls on Interstate 80 in recent years.
That proposal was rejected by the Federal Highway Administration in 2010 because revenue would have been directed from the I-80 tolls to fund transportation and mass transit projects around the state.
If interstate tolling was considered, the revenue would remain on the road where it was collected, Schoch said.
But if the state uses tolls to fund transportation, the revenue would not come to Harrisburg for statewide distribution. Instead, local tolling authorities could use the funds as they saw fit, allowing for greater local control, Schoch said.
If interstates are tolled, the money would have to be spent on that road only. Tolling on state roads could be part of a regional financing authority that would keep revenue local. Tolls could be combined with locally increased sales taxes or commuter taxes to pay for transportation improvements in certain regions.
“We’re recommending enabling legislation, so that local government and regional government can make decisions above and beyond what the state can afford to do what they believe they need economically,” Schoch said.
Lawmakers are willing to consider the enabling legislation, but the governor would have to provide political cover.
“None of this counts, unless the governor comes out and says that he supports it,” said state Rep. Rick Geist, R-Blair, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. “It’s up to the governor’s office to bring us a plan, and we have to execute it.”
State Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, minority chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said Corbett should be willing to prioritize transportation spending even in an environment when government in general is being cut back.
“When you look at the issues of core government, one of them is highway infrastructure,” Wozniak said.
State Senate President Joseph Scarnati,R-Jefferson, said he would "take a look" at a tolling plan that was geographically fair and kept the revenues in the same area as the tolls.