The debate over tolling Pennsylvania bridges, explained 

By: - March 12, 2021 7:20 am

Pennsylvania’s infrastructure is in trouble. 

Lackluster tax collections during the COVID-19 pandemic nearly put a halt last year to hundreds of road projects across the commonwealth, which were kept alive only after the state floated short-term debt to pay contractors and suppliers.

Now, lawmakers are trying to prevent a plan by the Department of Transportation to impose new tolls on nine bridges across the state, which the Wolf administration says is necessary to offset lagging proceeds from the state’s gas tax so it can maintain roads and bridges.

The proposal that PennDOT put into motion last year doesn’t require approval from the General Assembly. But it’s faced scrutiny from lawmakers of both parties, who have raised concerns about how the new tolls would affect traffic patterns and burden commuters with new costs. Here’s what you need to know. 

How PennDOT’s plan would work

Slow traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated Pennsylvania’s transportation funding woes, but the underlying problems weren’t new. 

The bulk of the Department of Transportation’s state-level funding comes from a tax on gasoline. But proceeds from that tax have slowed as cars become more fuel efficient and drivers switch to electric vehicles. That was especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many commuters started working from home. 

Pennsylvania levies the second-highest gas tax in the nation, so officials say raising the rate is out of the question. But it isn’t getting any less expensive to maintain roads and bridges. The agency says it has just $6.9 billion its annual budget to cover $15 billion in necessary repairs. Officials say they won’t be able to finance necessary projects – like repairing old bridges – without another form of income.  

That’s why PennDOT is proposing new tolls on nine bridges across Pennsylvania that run along major interstates. Consultants are still working to assess how much the tolls would cost, state transportation secretary Yassmin Gramian told lawmakers last month, but they might range anywhere from $1 to $2 at the entry point of a bridge. The agency hasn’t said what toll rates might be for trucks and trailers. 

Each of the nine bridges would likely be tolled at both ends, allowing the state to collect a toll no matter which way travelers are driving. That means that if you live in Cumberland County and travel across the Susquehanna River on the South Bridge spanning Interstate 83 to and from work each day, you’d pay a toll for your morning and evening commute. 

PennDOT is calling for all-electronic “open-road tolls,” meaning there’d be no toll booth impeding traffic flow. Electronic cameras would instead charge EZ Pass monitors or take photos of license plates to bill drivers later on. 

Gramian said the open-road design would limit traffic congestion. The technology won’t be new to anyone who already travels toll roads in Pennsylvania: the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission last year accelerated plans to replace its remaining toll workers with electronic tolling, leading to 500 layoffs that had initially been planned for 2022. 

What’s this about a public private partnership?

Under the plan PennDOT is proposing, the agency wouldn’t be the one upgrading the bridges or maintaining them in the years to come. It would pass that work to private partners, who can apply to the state to oversee the toll bridges for the next 20 years. 

State officials say this initiative is a prime candidate for public-private partnership. The nine bridges the state wants to toll need repairs totaling as much as $2 billion, which PennDOT says it can’t afford with its current revenues. Officials say it would be more efficient to let private partners make the upgrades and take control of long-term maintenance, all while using toll revenues to cover the cost of bridge repairs and, later on, fund other transportation projects.

These public private partnerships became legal the last time Pennsylvania overhauled its transportation funding laws in 2012, during then-Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration. The program easily cleared the House and got unanimous support in the Senate.

Officials have since said that the law has allowed them to execute transportation projects that the state wouldn’t have been able to finance on its own, such as when it partnered with a private firm to replace 558 structurally deficient bridges over the course of four years – a project that aimed to save time and money by bundling similar projects and outsourcing them to a single contractor. 

But crucially, public-private partnerships don’t require the approval of the General Assembly. PennDOT instead seeks authorization from a state regulatory board, which greenlit the bridge tolling initiative in November. 

What lawmakers are saying

PennDOT’s plan met swift opposition from the General Assembly, where lawmakers say that new tolls would burden commuters and create congestion on high-traffic thoroughfares. 

Even a $1 bridge toll would amount to $10 per week – or $40 per month – for a commuter who travels on a toll bridge to and from work five days a week. It’s likely that some commuters would find new routes to avoid the tolls, but that would affect traffic patterns on other roads, too. 

Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware, told Gramian last month that the plan was raising concern among commuters in the Philadelphia region. One of the bridges that could be tolled runs along Interstate 95 and provides a major commuter thoroughfare for suburbanites who work in Philadelphia.   

“This is the only bridge in southeastern Pennsylvania, [it’s] is a high-traffic route,” Krueger said.

Gramian said traffic studies are ongoing to assess how the tolls would affect traffic flows. 

Republicans in the state Senate, meanwhile, say the project would mark a turning point in the state’s public-private partnership law: they say the state has never entered a public-private transportation partnership that creates new fees, and that state law never anticipated it.

“I’m very concerned with the size and scope and precedent that this initiative could have on our Commonwealth,” state Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, said Thursday. 

Republicans in the General Assembly have been at odds with Wolf for the last year over his use of executive power during the pandemic. The GOP-led Senate is now considering legislation that would limit the executive branch’s regulatory power by requiring the Legislature to approve its proposed public-private partnerships.

They say the state must manage its transportation shortfall by reducing spending.

“We must address spending and live within our means,” Langerholc said Thursday. “We must find creative ways to address this funding without simply imposing another fee.”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.