Commonwealth Court finds PennDOT’s public-private partnership board bridge tolling plan invalid

Senate Republican leaders said Thursday the decision was a victory for Pennsylvanians who would have been affected by the tolls

By: - June 30, 2022 3:48 pm

(*This story was updated Thursday, June 30, 2022, at 4:36 p.m. to include additional comment from Gov. Tom Wolf’s office.)

A Commonwealth Court decision has scuttled a statewide plan to use tolls to fund repairs and replacement of highway bridges across Pennsylvania.

A panel of three judges found PennDOT’s Public-Private Transportation Partnership Board failed to carry out its duties when it adopted a broad plan to use tolls to pay for infrastructure projects without identifying the projects.

It later designated nine interstate highway bridges, including a bridge on Interstate 79 in Allegheny County, as projects to be funded by the tolls.

South Fayette Township, Bridgeville Borough, and Collier Township objected to the I-79 project because the communities were not consulted before its announcement in February 2021. The municipalities contended they would be significantly affected by the project because the bridge tolls would drive traffic from the highway onto local roads.

The projects were also challenged by state lawmakers who said the process of selecting the bridges where tolls would be charged lacked transparency.

Senate Republican leaders said Thursday the decision was a victory for Pennsylvanians who would have been affected by the tolls.

“The new tolls would have taken more money out of the pockets of drivers at a time when families can least afford new financial burdens – all without being properly vetted or approved by the people’s elected representatives,” Sen. President Pro Tempore Jack Corman, R-Centre; Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland; and Senate Transportation Committee Chair Senator Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Bedford said in a statement.

Gov. Tom Wolf said the toll revenue could have provided a new funding source to replace the state’s gas tax.

“The Wolf administration continues to welcome discussions with the General Assembly on alternative funding sources that can replace the gas tax, which is no longer a dependable source of funding to meet all bridge and highway needs in this commonwealth,” Wolf’s office said.

A spokesperson for Wolf said his office is reviewing the opinion.

In the decision, posted Thursday, an en banc panel of seven Commonwealth Court judges agreed with the municipalities’ claims that the P3 Board had not followed the process outlined by Act 88, the law that created the board and authorizes public-private partnerships on transportation projects.

“There is no indication that the board engaged in any meaningful consultation with “persons
affected” by the initiative, as Act 88 requires,” Judge Ellen Ceisler wrote for the unanimous panel.

Although PennDOT argued that it had held hearings on the I-79 project after it was announced, that was inconsistent with the process outlined in Act 88.

The panel also found that the law bars the P3 Board from adopting a plan as broad as the bridge tolling plan because it is required to provide information on the communities the plan would affect.

“It is not clear how DOT could have provided this information—given the breadth of the Initiative, DOT would need to list either all municipalities in the Commonwealth or none of them. Neither
approach allows for meaningful consultation with affected persons before approval, which, as DOT’s form recognizes, is what Act 88 intends,” the panel said.

The decision also overturns PennDOT’s plans to use tolls to replace or repair bridges on Interstate 78 in Berks County, Interstate 80 in Carbon, Clarion, Jefferson and Luzerne counties, Interstate 81 in Susquehanna County, Interstate 83 in Dauphin County, and Interstate 95 in Philadelphia.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.