Bridge Tolling Could Be A Reality On Some PA Interstates

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (Erie News Now) – With over 25,000 state-owned bridges, Pennsylvania has the third highest number of bridges in the country. 

Thousands of those bridges are in poor condition. Now, PennDOT is taking action using an initiative to address nine major interstate bridges throughout the commonwealth.

Recent events, like the Pittsburgh bridge collapse, have put the spotlight on both the condition of Pennsylvania’s bridges, and the state’s plan for action.

“We’re just having a hard time with the existing funding levels that we have of doing adequate maintenance and replacement of those structures,” said PennDOT Alternative Funding Director Ken McClain. “We have an $8.1 billion annual funding shortfall,” he added.

PennDOT is moving forward with the Public Private Partnership (P3) Board’s approval of the Major Bridge P3 Initiative.

The initiative would install tolling infrastructure on nine bridges across the commonwealth and use the revenue collected to repay private contractors over a 30-year period.

“It is a necessary revenue stream to help replace and augment our current stagnated funding sources,” said McClain. “I liken it to taking a mortgage out on your home. That toll revenue will be the revenue stream that will pay back that borrowing of that initial investment,” he added.

Some lawmakers, like State Senator Scott Hutchinson (R-Warren/Butler), are strongly opposed to the initiative.

“Seems like a money grab to me, pure and simple,” said Hutchinson. “That P3 board has never had anything to do with tax proposals, tolling, revenue raising, they’ve never done anything like that. But for the first time in November of 2020, they came up with this really innocuous resolution saying that they want to toll bridges on interstates,” said Hutchinson.

Hutchinson argues that the process has not been transparent, contrary to what is required under current law.

“The legislature was not in session to be able to fight this,” said Hutchinson. “There are provisions in the P3 law that say the Legislature can pass a resolution to nullify their action, but you only can do that within, I think it’s 21 days, and guess what? We weren’t in session so it couldn’t happen,” he added.

He says the P3 law, Act 88, talks about public input well in advance of making any final decisions.

“There was none. There was zero. Now PennDOT is asking for input, but guess what? They’ve already made their decision,” said Hutchinson.

In Harrisburg, the “South Bridge” as it’s known locally, connects the city of Harrisburg with neighboring Cumberland County.  The bridge is one of the nine candidate bridges with an estimated construction cost as high as $650 million.

The Nescopeck Creek Bridge in Luzerne County has an estimated construction cost as low as $30 million.

Given the fact that the toll revenue collected from each bridge is to go specifically to that bridge’s construction cost, will the toll rates variate from bridge to bridge?

“The toll rate setting will be commensurate with the cost of the project,” said McClain. “We would envision that Nescopeck would be a less costly toll than what the South Bridge would be,” he added.

McClain says there are 346 tolling facilities nationwide that have proven to be effective revenue increasers.

“It’s a very, very proven method of revenue collection to help pay for a sustained infrastructure asset,” said McClain.

Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association President, Rebecca Oyler, disagrees.

“Tolling is one of the most inefficient ways to raise funding for infrastructure,” said Oyler.

Oyler says the impact on the state’s trucking industry could be devastating for a number of reasons. For example, making it harder for trucking companies to make competitive bids on contracts or routes that cross one or more of the candidate bridges frequently.

“It’s really going to affect our industry disproportionately,” said Oyler. “Maybe it just becomes so uncompetitive, that they pick up and leave and go to another state.”

Passenger cars can expect a toll rate between $1.00 – $2.00 if the plan goes through. For trucks, it’s likely to be four-to-six times that rate.

Oyler says that number is likely to change, and she questions the future authority PennDOT would have in the bridge tolling process.

“We don’t even know what the tolls will look like five years from now, ten years from now,” said Oyler.

McClain says PennDOT would not plan to raise the tolls but that they do have the authority to under the P3 law.

“If for some reason, traffic revenues dip or something happens, we do have the ability to raise tolls over time,” said McClain.

McClain realizes tolls aren’t favorable among drivers but says PennDOT is out of options, essentially with their hands tied.

“We just don’t have enough funds and enough money from the Pennsylvania Motor License Fund or the federal government to be able to sustain the 25,400 bridges that we’re responsible for,” said McClain.

Even though PennDOT is expected to receive $1.6 Billion over the next five years from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, McClain says it’s not even close to enough, given the funding gap in their annual budget.

“It’s not enough. Some people start hearing the word trillions and billions and they think, ‘Oh, PennDOT is cash flush,’ it’s not true, it’s eight-percent of what our need is annually being covered by that bipartisan infrastructure law,” said McClain.

Despite negative claims regarding procedural transparency, McClain says PennDOT is well within its rights.

“We followed the law,” said McClain. “The provisions that were in Act 88, PennDOT did follow as we went through this process.”

Hutchinson is trying to change the process.

He cosponsored Senate bill 382, which would require the Pennsylvania P3 Board to develop a detailed analysis of any proposed transportation project prior to approval.

SB 382 would void the current proposal by the Pennsylvania P3 Board and calls for more transparency for future projects. It would also require any future P3 project that involves a user fee, to receive legislative approval by the General Assembly.

“The General Assembly should be involved when there are tolls, because we believe it’s a tax on our infrastructure,” said Oyler. “I think there’re a lot of people out there who don’t realize that pretty soon they’re going to see a toll on their local bridge.”


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