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Local officials react to PennDOT bridge plan for tolling

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s plan to impose tolls on two bridges on Interstate 80 that span the Lehigh River in the White Haven area would hit visitors, residents, and businesses in the wallet, commerce and political leaders say.

But PennDOT says the tolls are needed to offset a $450 million drop in revenue to pay for a much-needed bridge replacement project. The project is expected to cost in the range of $47 million to $52 million.

“Industry and families will pay the tolls, an extra $5 to $10 a day to get to and from work,” says state Rep. Doyle Heffley, whose 122nd District represents Carbon County.

Heffley remains skeptical.

“The legislation — P3 — was passed years ago for public-private partnerships. It was never the intent of the legislature for PennDOT to be tolling bridges that have already been built. It’s another attempt by the Wolf administration to raise taxes on Pennsylvanians,” he said.

Chris Barrett, President/CEO at the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau, is also concerned about the impact of the tolls on tourism, the lifeblood of the Poconos.

“It’s going to be just another irritant for travel here in Pennsylvania,” he said.

“Will guests not want to travel here? The PA Turnpike keeps increasing tolls and fares.”

Barrett said it will affect residents, too.

“People have to go to work. I think the tolls are just going to reroute traffic to other roadways, which will then need more repairs and maintenance,” Barrett said.

Carbon County Commissioners’ Chairman Wayne E. Nothstein was succinct.

“I’m not in favor of that. Two bridges, it’s a concern for our local people,” he said.

Kathy Henderson, economic development director of the Carbon Chamber & Economic Development Corporation, is concerned about the costs, but understands the need.

“Trucking companies are already paying a usage tax, and higher registration fees per size of the truck. Plus, they pay more for diesel than we do for gas,” she says.

“It’s going to increase costs for freight customers. Trucking companies are going to have to recoup that expense, and it’s going to trickle down to the customer,” she said.

“If they can’t raise their prices, they can’t be competitive in the marketplace, especially the smaller mom-and pop businesses.”

State Sen. John Yudichak, I-Carbon/Luzerne, is also concerned about industry. “Putting bookend tolls on I-80 surrounding Greater Hazleton could significantly impede the economic progress we have made in northeastern Pennsylvania to attract national companies and thousands of new jobs to the region,” Yudichak said.

“I understand the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass a comprehensive transportation funding bill in the last 27 years has put a great strain on PennDOT’s budget, but I have great concerns about proceeding with a tolling plan that has not yet been vetted by the legislature or benefited from public input,” Yudichak added.

Henderson recognizes the need for the improvements.

“But we need reliable infrastructure in the country. It’s been ignored for decades, and now it’s time to pay the piper,” Henderson said.

PennDOT’s plan

The I-80 Over Lehigh River Bridge Project would replace both east and westbound spans. Built in 1965, the bridges cross over the Lehigh River, Lehigh Gorge State Park, Reading Blue Mountain and Northern Railroad and River Road in Carbon and Luzerne counties.

They carry an average of 27,400 vehicles per day, about 44 percent of which is truck traffic.

The spans are beyond repair and need to be replaced. The new bridges would be wider; the length of the eastbound on-ramp auxiliary lane would be increased, as would the height of the bridges’ barriers and the width of the shoulders.

The project would begin between 2023 and 2025, and take two or three years, according to PennDOT.

The department is studying how the tolls may impact local communities, and how alternate routes to avoid the toll may impact local traffic and roadways.

PennDOT expects to present its findings in the spring, and will hold either a virtual or in-person public meeting to discuss them and give people a chance to comment.

The department will also share project details, including engineering design, environmental impacts, construction schedule, maintenance and protection of traffic during construction and access to Lehigh Gorge State Park and boat launches in the park.

Why the tolls?

A confluence of two factors have put a $450 million dent in PennDOT’s revenue. People have been driving a lot less due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there’s been an uptick in the numbers alternative-fuel vehicles, such as electric and hybrid.

PennDOT’s largest source of revenue - 74 percent - comes from state and federal gas tax, says PennDOT Press Secretary Alexis Campbell.

“The bottom line is that our current and future funding is at risk. Gas taxes have become a less predictable source of revenue for transportation agencies across the country. As passenger vehicles become more fuel-efficient and all electric vehicle technology continues to evolve, we are seeing reduced revenues at the gas pump,” she says.

“Today, PennDOT must divert funding away from regional projects across the state to fund critical interstate and bridge needs. The Major Bridge P3 Initiative will mean bridges can pay for themselves through tolls allowing smaller regional projects to move forward. Collecting a toll to pay for the replacement or rehabilitation a bridge or highway has proven a successful funding strategy throughout the country. Securing a dedicated funding stream for these long-term costs ensures the bridge will continue to be maintained in a state of good repair,” Campbell says.

Revenues from the I-80 bridge tolling will be dedicated to those spans.

“The goal isn’t to ‘make money’ by tolling bridges. By making these bridges self-sufficient through tolling, we’re able to make these important infrastructure improvements without drawing significant resources away from other important projects,” Campbell says.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is proposing to impose tolls on the east and westbound bridges on Interstate 80 between Carbon and Luzerne counties. The agency says it would offset the cost of replacement. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO