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I-80 toll plans moving forward

PennDOT is moving forward with plans to charge tolls on major bridges to fund their replacement, against the wishes of many state lawmakers.

“I agree these projects need to be done, but I think there are many alternatives before double-taxing the residents of Pennsylvania,” said state Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon.

In late June, PennDOT announced it was seeking contractors to oversee the replacement of nine aging bridges located along interstate highways around the commonwealth.

The list of bridges includes the twin bridges which carry Interstate 80 over the Lehigh River.

The agency’s public-private transportation partnership (P3) says its Major Bridge P3 initiative will speed up the funding and construction for the bridges without taking away from other needed road projects.

The initiative would put contractors in charge of replacing and maintaining the bridges. In exchange, the contractor would be allowed to collect tolls from the vehicles which cross the bridge. Proposals are due Aug. 5.

While local lawmakers don’t dispute the fact that the bridges need to be replaced they say the Wolf administration is overreaching its authority by tolling existing roads.

“This governor has unfortunately made it very clear that he supports taking action without legislative approval, again and again, despite our constitutional requirements,” said Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill.

The Legislature approved the bill creating the P3 program, and gave the board the power to create tolls. But lawmakers say the law’s intent was to use tolls to create new highways, not existing ones which residents and businesses rely on for everyday use.

Argall, Heffley and Sen. John T. Yudichak, I-Luzerne, said they all support a bill that would end the major bridge program and provide more oversight of the P3 board. That bill has stalled in the house.

“I do not believe that PennDOT should have the ability to enact tolls on these nine bridges without legislative approval, and I strongly supported Senate Bill 382 which would terminate the bridge tolling initiative,” Yudichak said.

Pennsylvania residents already pay the second highest fuel tax in the country. Those funds are used to fund a portion of the Pennsylvania State Police’s budget in addition to highway projects.

Heffley, who serves on the House Transportation Committee, said he supports finding other ways to fund the state police, and reducing the amount of turnpike revenue that goes toward mass transit.

“We can fund these projects without putting an additional burden on the people of Pennsylvania,” Heffley said.

The Republican-controlled Legislature has proposed other alternatives to the major bridge initiative. One proposal is for the state to sell bonds which would be paid back with future money from the federal government.

The lawmakers all pointed to more federal funding as a solution to PennDOT’s ongoing funding gap.

Argall said he supports a proposal by U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, R-District 9, has proposed a bill that would allow leftover COVID-19 relief money to be used for infrastructure projects.

The stimulus packages passed during the pandemic did help offset the loss in gas tax revenue from people staying home. The Biden administration has proposed even more infrastructure funding, but Congress hasn’t been able to reach an agreement.

“In the absence of additional federal funding, I am hopeful that when the General Assembly reconvenes in September, we can come together in a bipartisan manner to study this proposal and arrive at a solution that is better than PennDOT’s shortsighted plan to toll these nine bridges,” Yudichak said.