HARRISBURG (AP) — State lawmakers have been getting an earful from people in northern Pennsylvania who do not want to pay for what they have long enjoyed for free. What has folks riled up all along the Interstate 80 corridor is the expected addition of tolls to the highway, a fight that pits some of the state’s most remote regions against its biggest cities. Opponents are facing a tall order. They have to either persuade the Legislature to repeal the 2-month-old law instituting the tolls or convince Congress or federal regulators to kill the project. But that also would eliminate billions of new dollars the deal is expected to generate for the state’s crumbling bridges, decaying highways and perpetually broke mass-transit agencies.

HOT TOPIC Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, said property tax reform used to be his constituents’ biggest priority. “Interstate 80 has eclipsed, significantly, property tax reform as the No. 1 issue,” he said. But the Democratic chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Allegheny County Rep. Joseph F. Markosek, has little sympathy. “I know they have political pressures on them, but I think it’s gotten to the point now where they’re politically grandstanding, and they have to put up or shut up,” he said. “If they’re willing to put up tax proposals, we’re certainly willing to listen.” Proponents argue that a painless way to finance transportation needs does not exist, and say the recent Minneapolis bridge collapse illustrates the consequences of doing nothing. “You can’t have it both ways,” said Joseph G. Brimmeier, chief executive of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, which will manage the I-80 tolls under an application awaiting federal approval. “You can’t have good roads, bridges and highways without somebody paying for them.”

COST AND EFFECT I-80 runs more than 300 miles through Pennsylvania between the New Jersey and Ohio borders. Brimmeier said it will cost the average tractor-trailer about $96 to cross the state when tolls are imposed in 2011, the typical car $25. The trucking industry suspects the real figures will be much higher, hurting truckers. “They’re beside themselves,” said Rene Hill of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association in Grain Valley, Mo. “I talk to guys every day, and bottom line, it’s going to put them out of business.” Worries that I-80 tolls will push traffic onto ill-equipped side roads were discussed at the recent inaugural meeting of the Stop I-80 Toll Committee in Clarion, a group that includes landowners, manufacturers and people who work in tourism. “We’re highly concerned what that’s going to do to our business district,” said Tracy Becker with the Clarion Area Chamber of Business and Industry. “They’re going to look for those (alternate routes) — everybody does.” Brimmeier said similar problems were predicted — but did not occur — when fares were recently increased on the turnpike. People living along I-80 say the plan requires them to subsidize transportation needs in other parts of Pennsylvania. The turnpike commission’s critics don’t want to see it expanded, and some people prefer an earlier proposal to lease the turnpike to a private entity. But the turnpike lease idea was so unpopular in the Legislature that an alternative was sought — the I-80 tolls.

BATTLE LINES Gov. Ed Rendell, who had pushed for the turnpike lease, has not given up on it. In light of the growing opposition to I-80 tolls and uncertainty about getting federal approval for them, he is currently seeking new turnpike lease bidders. “If there is a significant pool of money that might benefit our transportation funding needs, the governor will then present that information to the Legislature” for its consideration, said the governor’s spokesman, Chuck Ardo. Rep. Scott E. Hutchinson, R-Venango, has lined up about 20 co-sponsors for legislation to repeal the tolls. However, the bill that passed this summer was ultimately supported by a couple dozen House Republicans and the Senate Republican leadership, so the votes may not be there. Hutchinson sees the best chances of derailing the plan in Washington, where U.S. Reps. Phil English and John Peterson — Republicans who represent northern Pennsylvania districts through which I-80 passes — are pushing for Congress and federal regulators to reject it. “A lot is being said about how bad the tolling will be, but here again, no one is willing to support any of the alternative proposals,” said Sen. Roger A. Madigan, R-Bradford, chairman of the Transportation Committee. “Do we just let our transportation system collapse, or are we going to move ahead?”

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