A monkeywrench for tolling I-80?

The SEPTA strike may be over, but more headaches could be ahead for the public transit agency. According to a story in today's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a leading Republican lawmaker is urging the federal government to reject the state's application for tolls on I-80:

State Rep. Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, penned the letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood Tuesday questioning an analysis that said the commission's transfers of toll money to state coffers would be comparable to "rent" a private operator would pay. The company that did the analysis, Provident Capital Advisors, LLC of Baton Rouge, La., had never studied highways before and had changed its name from Provident Healthcare Coalition just days before landing the $50,000 turnpike deal, Smith wrote.

"A layman might conclude turnpike officials or their contractor looked for someone to give them the answers they sought, instead of finding someone qualified to provide an actual study of the value of I-80," Smith wrote.

Of course, turnpike officials have a different take. According to spokesman Carl DeFebo, the firm was chosen because it was independent.

"We didn't want firms that had a stake in other highway lease deals, or firms that were on the list of bidders to lease the turnpike," DeFebo said, referring to a failed state effort to seek private companies to lease the turnpike. "When it comes to how you conduct these kinds of financial evaluations, the methods are the same whether it's a warehouse you're leasing or a toll road."

What does this matter for SEPTA? Part of the money generated by the tolls will provide dedicated state funding for mass transit. If the application is rejected, it could put that funding in jeopardy.

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