The Lead

W.Pa. municipalities sue state to block PennDOT bridge tolling plan

By: - November 11, 2021 5:25 pm

Three municipalities in Pittsburgh’s southern suburbs are suing the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation over a $2 billion plan to pay for the replacement of nine bridges with future toll revenue.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Commonwealth Court on Thursday, asks for the court to block the tolling plan, and issue an injunction against the state accepting project bids because a board did not specifically consider or solicit feedback on each bridge the department now plans to rebuild. 

The plan calls for paying for the construction and maintenance of the bridges, which are spread across the commonwealth, by tolling travelers for at least the next 30 years. The tolls would likely cost between $1 to $2 per car.

The suit was brought by South Fayette Township, Collier Township, and Bridgeville Borough in Allegheny County. 

As part of the tolling plan, PennDOT planned a $150 million project to replace a 56-year old bridge, replace an interchange, and widen lanes within the municipalities starting as early as 2023.

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They claim the tolling plan will stress local roads, which are “inadequate in condition and design to accept additional significant volumes of vehicular traffic seeking to avoid the payment of a toll.”

The toll plan was initiated by PennDOT, and approved by a state board established under  a 2012 transportation funding law signed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. The board was empowered under the law with reviewing and approving public-private infrastructure projects.

Last November, the board approved a general plan to replace an unspecified number of the commonwealth’s 25,000 bridges. PennDOT cited a multi-billion dollar budget gap between repair needs and available funding for the toll plan.

Then, in February in 2021, the department announced which bridges it planned to replace.

This approval timeline “rendered meaningless” oversight provisions of the 2012 law that PennDOT is implementing the tolling plan under, the lawsuit argues. 

Without specific knowledge of the bridges slated for tolling, the lawsuit argues, municipalities could not register their concerns with the board.

The plan was “shielded from meaningful legislative purview,” the suit argues, because lawmakers did not know the specific bridges that would be tolled until after their statutory deadline to reject a project.

Transportation has long been an open sore in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania has among the highest gas taxes in the nation, but still suffers large shortfalls in funding to repave roads and replace bridges.

Much of this is because the state’s coffers are spread thin. Hundreds of millions of dollars in gas tax revenue has been funneled to cover State Police expenses over the last decade. 

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Public transportation also faces a funding cliff next year when transfers from the Turnpike Commission to transit agencies will drop by $400 million to just $50 million. If the General Assembly does not cover that funding gap, agencies will likely be forced to cut services.

While pushing for a permanent legislative fix, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has looked for creative ways to get money for infrastrastructure projects, from a carbon fee on gasoline sellers to congestion pricing during rush hour.

In a statement, state Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Washington, who  represents the townships suing PennDOT, voiced his support for the suit, and called on PennDOT to use coming federal infrastructure funds to replace the bridges instead of tolls.

“The Wolf administration views the taxpayers of this state as a never-ending source of revenue to do whatever it wants,” Ortitay said. “This tolling plan will only cause further deterioration of local roads and drive-up costs for everything.”

You can find a list of the proposed bridge projects here.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.