Running out

Nov. 13, 2008

The blue in Masada’s socks was done running.

The blue in Masada’s socks was done running.

That is when I knew I had him. It was on the final turn of the 400-meter race during the Ron Spamer Summer Camp Olympics when I cranked out the most exciting finish that I guarantee nobody is talking about today—or has not breathed a word of since that hot June afternoon in 1982. Masada, who wore his trademark blue socks every single day of his camp existence, diluted his pace to a jog the final 10 yards. He thought it was over; second place was his. I was already in a full sprint, but when I saw the careless assumption, the will to win—or at least take that highly coveted runner-up ribbon—spilled through every vein of my body, which proceeded to spill all over the finish line. Masada tried to respond to the sudden shock treatment, but my dive was too colorful to deny.

Masada quit, as some tend to do when the threat seems to be far short of that final turn. I have not decided yet whether Pennsylvania thought it was done sweating in its socks, or that it just got a sudden case of cold feet. But what happened during the long course of the application to toll I-80 cramps the mind.

The Pennsylvania DOT and Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission were asked to revise their application seeking tolling authority under the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program, but on Sept. 11 the Federal Highway Administration dropped the gate on the opportunity, stating that the application, or in this case re-application, included no information or data justifying the proposed amount for the annual toll payment or establishing that the level was based on an objective market valuation. The FHWA specifically asked for justification, but the commission sent no additional information supporting the lease payment level. Because the commission failed to double-knot its racing shoes, the FHWA said Pennsylvania’s application did not meet legal requirements for the correct use of toll revenue.

Pennsylvania then completely collapsed during its current race for road and bridge funding about three weeks later, when the sole bidder for the lease of the turnpike, called Pennsylvania Transportation Partners, pulled its $12.8 billion offer from the table, citing the struggling economy, made worse by a tightening credit market, as the primary reason.

From day one Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell paraded around privatization like it was a heavyweight champion fighter of transportation budget holes. Perhaps he should not have used both hands to hold up the prized belt, because his own legislature was not convinced that leasing the turnpike was the way to go. Rendell’s argument was in desperate need of a knockout punch, but instead it just stood there and danced in the middle of the canvas. With lawmakers refusing to come out of their corners and approve the lease, Pennsylvania Transportation Partners granted two extensions before it simply ran out of breath.

I am wondering how much training PennDOT and the Turnpike Commission put in to win tolling on I-80. Why after a second rewrite were there still holes? Was Rendell fixing this fight so the tax would fall flat on its face and the state would have no choice but to approve the lease? Did he stop running after that decisive turn four? It sure is a tempting thought to fire off. If states are going to pursue tolling or private investment, it is critical to convince everyone to pile on the finish line and bring something to the victory party. In the meantime, Pennsylvania may be out hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. There is no clear winner here, only clear losers.

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