Could charging Pa. motorists for rush-hour driving pay for infrastructure? PennDOT wants to find out

Acting PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Officials at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation told a House panel this week that they’re studying a congestion fee as a solution to the state’s constant search for cash to fund highway and public transit investment.

Acting PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian told the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday that the agency had received federal go-ahead to study tolling drivers for using highways during rush hours.

“We’re in good shape. We can do the study … [and] make a decision if we want to proceed,” Gramian told the committee.

She said the study would focus on four corridors — around Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and in the Lehigh Valley.

In an email, PennDOT spokesperson Erin Waters-Trassat said the department was expecting to use federal and state dollars to conduct the study.

“We are looking at a host of tools – and it may be a package of different solutions such as tolling and congestion pricing – that could help Pennsylvania with critical investment revenue while achieving multiple goals,” Waters-Trassat said. “In addition to sustainable funding, these options could reduce congestion and improve travel reliability and air quality.”

The presentation was part of the department’s $1.2 million budget ask, a 64 percent decrease from last year’s $3.4 million General Fund allocation. To be sure, the department spends billions of dollars on road projects, but most of PennDOT’s funding comes directly from gas tax revenues without any legislative say.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the goal of congestion pricing is to convince motorists to take public transit or carpool instead of clogging highways. By removing cars, the hope is traffic flows smoothly.

There can be other positive consequences, said Ben She, a transit committee member in Philadelphia’s 5th Square. The group is a political action committee that backs urbanist policies on transportation and land use.

She told the Capital-Star that pricing could also clear the way for buses, reduce wear-and-tear on roads, and decrease air pollution and carbon emissions.

Gramian did not say how much such a fee could raise for Pennsylvania. But a congestion pricing plan for New York is estimated to raise $1 billion annually.

From declining gas tax revenue to mounting Turnpike debt and hundreds of millions of dollars raided to pay for the state police, Pennsylvania’s transportation dollars are stretched thin.

In 2018, PennDOT spent $4.6 billion on road and bridge repairs and improvements, plus another $1.8 million on public transit. But a 2019 advisory report found that the state was still $4.3 billion dollars short in road spending, and $1.2 billion short on mass transit. 

The same report warned that, when transfers from the Pennsylvania Turnpike to PennDOT end in 2022, the gap between needs and available dollars could expand.

Still, at Tuesday’s hearing, lawmakers from both parties asked Gramian about local transit projects, from new trains to Pittsburgh to road widening in the Lehigh Valley.

The divide between funding reality and legislative desires was sourly noted by the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Matt Bradford, of Montgomery County.

“One of the things I fear when you hear ‘I want my train station repaired’ or ‘I want my road fixed’ is how do you plan on funding it,” Bradford said. “The governor, like it or not, doesn’t have the proposal we want for two years forward. But frankly, the governor may not be here when that cliff comes, but this legislative body will be.”

For his part, Gov. Tom Wolf has had some evergreen policy on transportation.

In all six budgets he’s proposed, a fee on municipalities that use the state police for local policing to reduce costly transfers from PennDOT.

Since last year, Wolf has also pushed for the Legislature to approve a $4.5 billion plan called “Restore PA.” It would be funded by debt — backed by a tax on natural gas production — and pay for everything from rural broadband to blight remediation to new bridges.

And in his budget address, the governor suggested that dollars from a proposed cap-and-trade program be used for public transit. 

But Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, called both a state police fee and Restore PA “worthless pieces of paper” that “never had a chance to pass” the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

“He’s promised that money to everybody and every cause in the commonwealth,” Saylor said of Restore PA. “You can’t walk into the little town of Columbia in Lancaster County and promise to use that money for blight, and then walk up to Potter County and promise you’re going to use that money for broadband.”

Instead, the GOP is offering its own plan. Despite the costly estimates of unmet needs, it includes no new state funding.

Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, helped author the report. She said “exploring any of the alternatives” for funding “is a good call” by PennDOT. But she plugged the task forces’ recommendations as a way to take immediate action.

Recommendations include streamlining permitting for public infrastructure projects, letting counties increase local taxes for transportation projects, and encouraging public-private partnerships, among other tweaks.