Why Wolf’s plan to toll Pa. bridges is a road to nowhere with lawmakers | Thursday Morning Coffee

February 25, 2021 7:20 am

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Reading about the roiling controversy surrounding the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s plans to toll nine bridges across the state to raise the money to replace them, I couldn’t help but be reminded of one state lawmaker’s famous adage about Harrisburg’s traditional resistance to raising new taxes and fees.

“Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die,” ex-state Sen. John Wozniak, a Cambria County Democrat, would often quip during heated floor debates over new tax and spending measures.

First up, let’s stipulate that fixing roads and bridges is a core function of government. Even the most rabid of small government conservatives agrees to that premise. And doing that costs big money.

The funding requirement is real. PennDOT needs about $15 billion a year to cover its road and bridge needs, but only has about $6.9 billion available to spend, agency Secretary Yassmin Gramian told the House Appropriations Committeethe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike (Douglas Muth/Flickr)

The construction work, which is now scheduled to start in 2023, would be done through public-private partnerships with contractors who would design, replace and maintain the bridges while the state collected the toll revenue, according to the Post-Gazette. The repairs are expected to cost $1.6 billion to $2 billion.

Any leftover money from when the bridges are paid off would be used for local roads until the 30-year tolling authorization expires, the newspaper reported.

Which all sounds great on paper.

But the issue for lawmakers, based on conversations with staffers and insiders familiar with the matter, is that PennDOT didn’t bother to get any buy-in from impacted lawmakers who now have to explain to their constituents why they’ll have to pay $1- or $2-per trip for the next 30 years every time they cross one of the impacted bridges.

Do a little back-of-the-envelope math there: If you’re a motorist who crosses the South Bridge over Interstate 83 in Dauphin County — which is one of the bridges on PennDOT’s list —  twice a day for work, that’s at least $4 day, for a total of $20 a week, and $1,040 a year.

For the next 30 years.

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This drama is unfolding amid the Democratic Wolf administration’s already strained relations with a Republican-controlled General Assembly that’s so angry over its pandemic management policies that it’s poised to send a ballot question to voters limiting the emergency powers of Gov. Tom Wolf and all his successors.

“The administration has done a terrible job of getting legislative buy-in. They seem to be happy following their pandemic precedent,” Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, told the Capital-Star on Wednesday. “It’s always easier to get work done if you have buy-in from the Legislature. No one can say ‘no’ if you don’t ask.”

Traditionally, and as a matter of law, the Legislature controls the power of the purse. But lawmakers are in a pickle of their own devising: They surrendered control over PennDOT’s tolling program when they approved the creation of the Corbett-era Public-Private Partnership Board that came up with the new tolling scheme, as the Post-Gazette reports.

But from where legislators are currently sitting, PennDOT now looks like it’s pitting one part of the state against the other without any rationale to back it up, a former state official with knowledge of the matter, and who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about it, told the Capital-Star.

That not only means that impacted lawmakers will dig in, but so too, will legislative leaders who will be obligated to defend them.

“Republicans are in favor of privatization The issue here isn’t the private sector doing the bridge and tolls,” the former official said. “They feel like the administration tried to put one over on them by doing the [public-private partnership] because there was no map [of bridges] with toll rates.”

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There is, if you’ll pardon the pun, an already existing roadmap in place for this kind of thing.

In 2012-13, as the former Corbett administration built support for its $2.3 billion transportation funding package, which included a politically radioactive increase to the state’s wholesale gasoline tax, then-PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch went on a weeks-long goodwill tour as he explained to individual lawmakers how they stood to benefit and could explain away the tax hike.

During her appearance before the Appropriations Committee, Gramian, stressed the importance of the repairs, as well as the need to act with dispatch.

“These bridges aren’t in safe condition,” she said, according to the Post-Gazette. “These bridges are all coming to the end of their life expectancy.”

But even if PennDOT was not required to warn lawmakers ahead of time that it was proceeding with the tolling plan, it’s still a massive failure of common sense.

Legislators already are getting deluged with calls from concerned constituents, the Capital-Star learned Wednesday. Simply letting the affected lawmakers know ahead of time that the tolling scheme was coming would have given them time to prepare.

That would have eased the concerns of constituents and saved the administration from looking like it was doing yet another end-around on the legislative branch.

“There are many ideas that get floated out, and they realize, given the nature of the response, are not in the public interest,” Gottesman, the spokesman for GOP floor leader Benninghoff, said. “There are questions why eight of the nine bridges are in Republican districts. There will be more oversight and there will be more public pressure. There is a lot of room for members to voice concerns about what’s going on”

Administration spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger told the Capital-Star in an email that lawmakers, via their appointees to the Public-Private Partnership Board, had “input and involvement for months.”

“Not only was the process outlined in bipartisan legislation that is almost eight years old, the … board, which includes legislative appointees, voted unanimously on this plan last fall,” Kensinger said.

Which brings us back to Wozniak and his notable adage. Bridges need to be built. Roads need to be paid for. Everyone wants it. No one wants to pay. And everyone’s trying to shift responsibility.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
With Census data delayed by the pandemic, state lawmakers are looking for a way forward on the decennial legislative redistricting and congressional reapportionment process, Cassie Miller reports.

bipartisan plan to legalize recreational marijuana and expunge records of pot offenders is now before the state Senate, Stephen Caruso reports.

Republican lawmakers have accused the Wolf administration of trying to fix the results of a spring ballot question limiting the emergency powers of Gov. Tom Wolf and his successorsElizabeth Hardison reports.

A bill mobilizing the Pa. National Guard for COVID-19 vaccines is headed to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk, Hardison also reports.

Public health officials in Philadelphia have added HIV/AIDS to the list of underlying conditions eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, our partners at the Philadelphia Gay News, who first broke the news that people living with HIV/AIDS had been excluded, report.

big uptick in vaccine supplies for states is expected soon, industry executives have told Congress. Capital-Star Washington Reporter Laura Olson has the story.

On our Commentary Page this morning, a Baylor University scholar explains how Philadelphia’s Black churches overcame disease, depression and civil strife. And Pennsylvania once had a near-miss with Texas-sized deregulation. Opinion regular Ray E. Landis argues that we have to remember our history and be on guard.

En la Estrella-Capital: Estos son los legisladores Republicanos que quieren destituir al Gobernador Tom Wolf.  Y el registro centralizado de vacunas podría llegar cuando crezca el suministro, dijo el Gobernador Tom Wolf.

Sen. Pat Toomey. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Pennsylvania Republicans met for more than five hours Wednesday night to decide on whether to censure U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. The meeting broke up without a result, the Inquirer reports.
Pittsburgh City Council committee has given its approval to an eviction moratorium, the Post-Gazette reports, putting it on track for action by the full council.
A state oversight board has repealed the rejection of Harrisburg’s 5-year financial plan, PennLive reports.
The Morning Call looks at the emerging ‘citizens army’ that activists are mobilizing ahead of this year’s decennial redistricting effort.
Vaccine providers in Luzerne County received more than 14,000 doses this week, the Citizens-Voice reports.
Healthcare giant WellSpan Health is opening a mass vaccination site in York County, the York Daily Record reports.

Here’s your #Bucks County Instagram of the Day:


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File under Only in Philadelphia:’ indicted City Council member Bobby Henon out-raised his council colleagues in 2020WHYY-FM reports.
Geisinger allowed employees’ relatives to skip the vaccine line. It’s unclear if that cost members of the public their doses, the Associated Press reports (via WITF-FM).
GoErie delves into how the Biden administration’s immigration reform proposal will impact Erie’s substantial immigrant and refugee community
Veterans in southwestern Pennsylvania paused Wednesday to mark the 30th anniversary of a deadly missile attack in Saudi Arabia, killing 28 soldiers and injuring hundreds more, the Observer-Reporter reports.
U.S. Reps. Scott Perry, R-10th District, and Mike Kelly, R-16th District, will speak on panels during this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference, PoliticsPA reports.
Women have gained record power in state Legislatures across the country this year, reports.
Roll Call looks at the emerging legislative response on Capitol Hill to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

What Goes On.
Budget hearings roll on in the House Appropriations Committee today. All sessions are on the House floor. The Department of Health gets the committee all to itself today, starting at 10 a.m. The House and Senate Democratic Policy committees hold a joint hearing starting at 3 p.m. And on Capitol Hill, former Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine appears before the Senate for her confirmation hearing.

Heavy Rotation.
We’ll flash back to the 1990s today for a classic from Swedish popsters The Cardigans. No, it’s not that one. Here’s ‘My Favourite Game.’

Thursday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
 dropped another one to Tampa on Wednesday night, losing 3-0 to the ‘Bolts. Today’s a new day, fellas.

And now you’re up to date. 

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.