Wednesday, September 14, 2011

422 tolling/rail plan gets a failing grade

I spent last evening with residents from all along the 422 corridor who came out en masse to the tune of several hundred attendees to participate in a panel discussion at Pope John Paul II High School,  hosted by Rep. Mike Vereb (150th), on the subject of "fixing 422", how to pay for it, and whether a rail option should be part of the plan.  Our township manager, Joe Dunbar, and supervisor Colleen Eckman attended from Lower Providence.
Barry Seymour (DRVRPC), Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, Times Herald editor Stan Huskey, and Rep. Warren Kamp (R-157) (photo courtesy Pottstown Patch)
Panelists included Rep. Marcy Toepel (147th), Rep. Warren Kampf (157th), Rep. Tom Quigley (146th), Stan Huskey, editor of the Times Herald, Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, and Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

The forum allowed for residents to have an interactive voice, posing questions to the panel via card, and permitting panelists to elaborate on key provisions of the proposed plan. As several attendees told me afterward, they didn't like the plan as presented - which includes the possibility of tolling and takes into account a new regional rail line - and wondered aloud 'If this is Plan A, what's Plan B?"

Attendees first reviewed a Powerpoint summary of the current scenario.  The document indicated projected population is anticipated to increase 50 percent in the corridor region over the next ten years, bringing with it increased gridlock and delays. Financial data included the revelation that funds generated by tolls - about $60 million a year, increasing over time, of course,  would only cover about 25% of the money needed to operate and maintain 422 and the proposed rail line. Rep. Toepel later stated that 'the numbers don't make sense'. 

Pointing out that federal transportation funding will decrease 35% over the next six years and that PennDOT has $1 billion less to spend than it did four years ago, Seymour hoped that Gov. Corbett would seriously consider implementing the Governor’s Transportation Commission’s suggestions to increase transportation funding by $3.5 billion. If that happens, tolling may not be needed on 422 at all.

Residents questioned every aspect of the proposal, including, but not limited to, why 422 was singled out for tolling when improvements to 309 and 202 were not; what's happened to money already allocated for road improvements; how to keep the toll from being a permanent solution; what the potential costs of implementing tolling would be and what would the impact be on local jobs and roads; exploring other, more fair, avenues of revenue generation such as increased licensing and registration fees and increasing the gas tax - options which spread the cost to all state residents; and of course the train/rail line aspect. The sentiment of the vast majority in attendance was that legislators needed to find ways to do more with less and perhaps find ways to cut spending in other areas to pay for needed transportation improvements - and remove the rail aspect from the plan entirely.

The cost of the proposed rail plan is estimated at $370 million. Hoeffel said that figure could be eliminated from total cost of the project. Estimates indicated that it would cost about $750 million to improve Route 422 and replace the Betzwood Bridge, and pulling the $370 million rail line cost out still leaves the  project short by about $500 million. 

Many fear the creation of yet another 'authority' to supervise and (mis?)manage funds generated by tolling and view tolling as yet another way to divert transportation funds to chronically nonself-sustainable SEPTA.  As Joe Hoeffel observed, however, all forms of transportation are subsidized in some fashion by taxpayers - airlines, buses, and highways, so why not rail? (Hoeffel's repeated use of the word 'investment' in terms of this project did not endear him to any of the folks I talked to).  One resident cautioned planners "not to assume the revenue will be there", as  many commuters would likely choose to avoid 422 in favor of using free local roads even if they have to sit in traffic to do so.

The toll would be collected not via traditional toll booths, but with E-Z pass technology. Seymour said that those without E-Z Pass would be billed through the mail based on photos of their license plates. Some attendees questioned the costs of doing that.

One question submitted asked why this issue could not be put out for vote by referendum. Rep. Vereb observed that this had not been done since the open space referendum a few years ago and that there are considerable costs to put out a referendum; it was felt that a meeting such as this forum would elicit stakeholder feedback more quickly without incurring the costs.

While the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the plan (surprised? I'm not) the question was put out as to whether the local Montgomery county Chamber of Commerce had taken a position on the plan. New Chamber president Kathy Brandon was in the audience and contributed that while the Chamber had not taken a position, they had polled their  members and found no support for it, adding that there 'are too many unanswered questions' at this point.

Privatization was also raised as possibility and the panel indicated that this option may be a part of the ongoing discussion.

The panelists reiterated that "only the State can create a local tolling option", that nothing will happen without legislation being introduced, passed, and signed by the governor; currently there is no legislation proposed. 

Frequent applause and cheering at key points, along with a few loud audience members who shouted out comments, made it clear that the vast majority of the attendees were not in support of either a tolling option or a rail line.

You can see other articles from Reading, Pottstown, and Norristown publications containing more details and photos here,  herehere and here.


Renie said...

I was unable to attend, a coworker of mine that went had mentioned that of all the 422 traffic, only 20% go to Philadelphia. Can you confirm? I haven't found that pointed out in any of the articles. I think that is an important point against rail. It isn't going where the majority of the drivers go and a big potential for more waste.

Janice Kearney said...

I recall a comment about the percentage of traffic into Philly but I don't recall if that was the percentage quoted or who stated that. I'd have to look into it. It may have been shouted out by someone in the audience and is thus unvalidated.

Janice Kearney said...

This link gives more detail and quotes the traffic into Philly off 422 at 25%.

Anonymous said...

i wasn't at the meeting but have been commuting on 422 for almost 10years. its very easy politically to be against the tolling plan. however, other than the tolling plan, i haven't seen any other REALISTIC plan to alleviate the problem. regardless of my personal view on the tolling plan, i respect hoeffel for presenting a realistic solution. i can't say the same for the other pols who are against the tolling plan for political purposes but offer no viable solutions. hoping corbett magically finds a few billion in this economy is laughable.
also, it only takes a few percent reduction in rush hour vehicles to have a significantly higher reduction in congestion so the rail option shouldn't be completely dismissed.