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Lawmaker: Tolling bridges ‘double taxation’

A group of state and federal lawmakers met with the Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation Thursday to voice opposition to a plan to place tolls on 11 bridges around the state, including one along Interstate 80 in Carbon County.

While the secretary attended the meeting, officials said they were disappointed that she left for a cabinet meeting before taking any of their questions.

“It seems like the governor has failed to recognize the importance of public input … that he wouldn’t excuse you from the cabinet meeting,” Congressman Glenn Thompson said to Secretary of Transportation Yasmeen Gramian.

Thompson, a Western Pennsylvania Republican, held the hearing in hopes of getting more specifics about the tolling plan. Two of the bridges are located along I-80 in his district. He said he’s opposed to the plans because they unfairly impact the people and businesses located nearby.

“This is basically double taxation. This doesn’t replace the gas tax or the incredible taxes on our trucking companies, this is above and beyond. This is layering taxes on,” he said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s major bridge tolling plan calls for tolls on 11 bridges located along interstate highways. Ten are at least 50 years old and in need of repair or replacement, according to PennDOT. Each bridge project would be paid for with its own toll revenue.

Gramian said that the tolling plan is needed because of a $8 billion annual funding gap in funding for repairs to Pennsylvania’s bridges and roads.

Despite having one of the nation’s highest gasoline taxes, the state still doesn’t generate enough from gas taxes to fund bridge repairs, she said.

“Transportation funding is at a crisis point,” Gramian said.

One of the bridges, carrying I-83 over the Susquehanna River, is estimated to cost $650 million. She said that is roughly one-third of PennDOT’s entire construction program for 2021.

“The program provides the mechanism for delivering critical bridge projects that, individually, would strain current funding sources,” she said.

Congressman Dan Meuser participated in the hearing. Two of the bridges are located in his district, including a bridge in Carbon County carrying I-80 over the Lehigh River. Meuser said he believes that the plan is not what Pennsylvanians want.

“The people we all work for clearly do not believe there’s a value proposition in this plan. They don’t feel they’ll be getting anything extra from what they already have, and yet they’ll be paying these additional tolls and higher costs,” Meuser said.

State legislators who participated in the hearing criticized the Wolf administration for proposing the tolling plan without giving them a chance to have input.

The hearing also included representatives from the trucking industry and from businesses in Thompson’s district.

Greg Lander, whose family has owned Klapec trucking for 70 years, said tolling would generate a huge cost for his company, in a competitive business where profit margins are thin.

“We started out here, we try to stay here,” Lander said. “If we need to move out of Pennsylvania, that’s what we need to do to stay alive. It’s more survival mode than anything else.”

The head of the Chamber of Commerce in Clarion predicted that manufacturers in the area would suffer, and the downtown would be clogged with trucks detouring around the tolled bridges.

The president of the Pennsylvania Motor Trucking Association said that many more trucking companies across the state would be in the same situation as Klapec. Rebecca Oyler said gas taxes and turnpike tolls should be used for their stated purpose. Eleven cents of every dollar collected in Pennsylvania’s fuel taxes go to funding state police, and turnpike tolls are used for mass transit, she said.

The head of the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates said that tolling is one of the more inefficient ways to collect revenue for road projects. Stephanie Kane said there is no one solution, but a mix of registration fees, gas taxes and electric vehicle fees seems to be the best option.

Meuser said there is an opportunity for PennDOT to fund road projects using funds from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan which was recently adopted into law. Meuser proposed an amendment to the plan that would have done just that.

“It would be wise to use some of these funds that are already allocated or soon to be allocated to cover the costs for these tolls that under this plan would be paid by Pennsylvania drivers, truckers and small businesses,” Meuser said.