Feds: No tolls on I-80 in Pa.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — John Dotter’s milk trucks are on the road, seven days a week, hauling to plants up to 120 miles away.

Dotter, who milks 750 cows in Clinton County, relies on Interstate 80 to haul his milk to plants owned by Hershey Foods, Land-o-Lakes and Weiss Markets. That’s why he was downright furious when, two years ago, Pennsylvania lawmakers sought to toll I-80 in order to generate money for the state’s crumbling highway infrastructure.

But that frustration turned to relief last week when the Federal Highway Administration rejected the state’s application to toll the road.

Good for ag

Farmers and agricultural business across the Commonwealth applauded the federal government decision, saying tolls would have added burdensome costs to their operations. Farm organizations, and Congressional leaders, had lobbied the Federal Highway Administration to reject the highway tolling plan.

Pennsylvania lawmakers had anticipated adding tolls on the 311-mile-long highway, and using the money for road and bridge projects across the state.

Interstate 80, which cuts across the northern tier of Pennsylvania, is one of the main trucking thoroughfares in the state, and is used by many agricultural businesses.

Not so fast

That’s why the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau played an active role in trying to get the tolling plan overturned, said Mark O’Neill, a spokesman for the farm bureau.

“It would have been a huge negative impact on farmers, especially those on the I-80 corridor,” he said. “The farmer would be getting more expenses added on to his bottom line. In addition, unlike other business, the farmer would be unable to pass on those expenses to consumers.”

At least 10 percent. For Dotter, tolls would have added at least 10 percent on to his expenses. And because the price of milk is not keeping up with the cost of production, any added expenses would have put dairy farmers further in the hole, Dotter said.

“We would have been paying tolls seven days a week,” he said. “We are on the road a lot.”

Competitive disadvantage

At Furmano Foods, which packages and distributes canned tomato products from its Northumberland County factory, tolling the highway would have significantly increased costs, said David Geise, company president.

Furmano Foods purchases most of its vegetables from Pennsylvania growers, many of whom use the interstate to deliver materials, Geise said.

Tolling would have added $500,000 onto their yearly shipping costs, he said.

“The tolling of I-80 would have put us at a great disadvantage in competitive costs and increased the cost of our products shipped, as well as our raw material cost,” Geise said in a prepared statement.

Sterman Masser, a Schuylkill County potato grower that supplies numerous regional grocery stores, said tolling would have added $3,000 to their shipping costs a day, said Keith Masser, company president.

The potato company brings in 10 tractor trailer loads of spuds a day from growers in Michigan on the I-80 corridor, Masser said.

“It would have been devastating to us. It could have been a million dollar impact on our budget,” he said. “It was a big sigh of relief when it did not go through.”

Major thoroughfare

A study of the I-80 proposal, sponsored in part by the Farm Bureau, found that about 75,000 people in the region work for employers that rely on the highway for shipping, O’Neill said.

While most agree that the state’s highway infrastructure is in need of attention, financing it with tolls was not a smart option, O’Neill said.

The Farm Bureau believes other alternatives must be considered, he said.

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