If the Obama administration really wants to stimulate Pennsylvania's economy, it needs to nudge the Federal Highway Administration into allowing the state to start tolling Interstate 80. The upside of acceptance would be great -- jobs, repairs for roads and bridges, funding for transit agencies. The downside of refusal would be dire.
How dire? That can be glimpsed by looking into the financial potholes on the road planned for Pennsylvania's future. The biggest is the state transportation budget that Gov. Ed Rendell proposed for 2010-11. It relies on tolling I-80 for $470 million in revenue.
And if crumbling roads and bridges go on crumbling without raising extra alarm, there's still another challenge that would bring the problem very visibly home. For the Port Authority, a federal refusal to toll I-80 would mean a $25 million shortfall in its 2010-11 operating budget.
The Port Authority is already in the midst of a major overhaul in its operations; fares were raised for many riders starting in the new year, and on April 4 routes will be changed. If I-80 tolling is turned down, CEO Steve Bland told the Post-Gazette, "It would be a devastating impact ... it's hard to imagine how we would resolve that big a deficit without an impact on fares and/or service."
Despite the regional resistance to I-80 tolling, it is not something that would be forced on the state. It is being sought by the state Department of Transportation and the turnpike commission pursuant to the democratically expressed will of the General Assembly, which passed Act 44 in 2007.
The first request for tolling was denied by the Bush administration, but the arguments for tolling are stronger now. So much is riding on approval and it would be absurd if the Obama administration, while seeking to stimulate state economies with one hand, were to dash an economic boost for Pennsylvania with the other.