on PA Interstate 80

On I-80 in Pennsylvania
Photo: redskunk

It’s a hard irony that what connects cities to the countryside ““ highways ““ now appear to be driving urbanites and rural citizens apart. Actually, nobody’s disagreeing about pavement or signage, just how to pay for them.

In Pennsylvania, the highway battle has intensified since Governor Ed Rendell (D) succeeded with a plan to turn Interstate 80, which slices east to west through the whole state, into a toll road. State legislators approved the highway plan, but now two Republican Congressmen from rural, far NW Pennsylvania have dug in, determined to prevent it. Phil English (R) of the 3rd District, and John Peterson (R) of Pennsylvania’s 5th say that tolls on Interstate 80 would penalize their districts to pay for mass transit improvements in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

“What will be hurt, (English) said, are small communities along I-80 that rely on travelers’ patronage plus businesses and industries within that area that use the interstate. “˜There is an old saying”¦.”don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that man behind the tree.” Behind the tree are travelers and truckers,'” English said

He and Peterson have taken two Congressional swipes at the toll plan ““ one, an outright ban, another that would toss any toll income out of Pennsylvania back in the federal bucket. Governor Rendell and his supporters are furious.

Some nasty accusations flew this week. “The level of rhetoric in Pennsylvania is astounding,” Rod Nofziger, director of government affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association told Land Line (a truckers’ news service). “OOIDA officials view tolls on interstates to be double taxation on truckers, who already pay fuel taxes and mileage taxes.” New Jersey neighbors don’t care much for the toll plan either.

The roads debate has gotten hotter than asphalt in August, and Rep. Peterson told the Pittsburgh paper he expects “a real slugfest in Washington.”

on Interstate 80 in PA
Interstate 80 W, Clearfield County, Pennsylvania
Photo: Nicholas T

Okay. But aren’t rural and urban interests ALWAYS at odds? Well, in Pennsylvania, according to an opinion research team, the answer is an astonishing NO. G. Terry Madonna and Michael Young, compiled 20 polls of Pennsylvanians and found that upstate and downstate citizens generally agree, even on the sweaty “values” issues.

“The conventional wisdom predicts big differences,” they wrote, “But the data beg to differ.” They found that the same percentage of urban and rural citizens “think that abortions should be illegal under any circumstances (20%).” Even more surprising, there are no differences between percentages of urbanites and ruralites who “somewhat or strongly oppose equal rights based on gender identity.” Again, 20% of both city and country residents.

In a new article, Madonna and Young observe that the toll highway issue has been extremely divisive. But, based on their earlier finding of general urban/rural harmony, they argue that the highway conflict isn’t an expression of underlying “culture wars” or the re-emergence of stereotypical splits between “hicks” and “slicks.”

No, it’s really over the money at stake. And, they write, “as such, it threatens to unsettle the crucial economic questions once thought to be decided — who gets what, when, and how. It also threatens to obscure, if not obstruct, the wide and growing consensus in Pennsylvania.”

The source of that threat is, of course, scarcity — a very old problem, to be sure. But it’s now threatening in intensely new ways because the federal government has been spending proportionately less on infrastructure of many kinds — including highways. Consequently, state and local governments have had to put out more. For a jolly good time, check out this report from the Congressional Budget Office on infrastructure spending 1956-1994:

State and federal spending on infrastructure

Source: Congressional Budget Office (and Daily Yonder)

“The federal share of such spending rose dramatically during the first half of that period, expanding from 17 percent in 1956 to 40 percent in 1977. Since the end of the 1980s, however, state and local governments have contributed approximately 75 percent of public infrastructure outlays, and current patterns of spending maintain that trend.” (Note that the CBO report ends in 1994, before the federal government had wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to pay for.)

So if state governments must pay more for interstate highways, where will this “more” come from? Tolls and gas taxes are two possibilities – both of them unpopular.

We hear a lot about the cultural divisions between rural and urban Americans, but culture doesn’t explain Pennsylvania’s toll road “slugfest.” This battle isn’t over “values” but money ““ the money needed to pay for federal highways that the feds can’t or won’t provide.

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