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PennDOT makes bridge toll pitch

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials came before state lawmakers to explain their plans to toll bridges and faced tough questions from a local legislator.

Transportation Secretary Yassmin Gramian headlined a House Transportation Committee hearing on PennDOT’s major bridge tolling proposal last Friday. A dozen other speakers who appeared at the hearing expressed opposition to the tolling plans.

“We hope we can course correct and reshape some of the PennDOT Pathways Initiative,” said Rep. Tim Hennessey, R-Chester/Montgomery, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

PennDOT has proposed a public-private partnership with a contractor that would replace nine bridges around the commonwealth, and pay for them with tolls on drivers that use the bridges. PennDOT has identified three potential “teams” to partner with, each of which are made up of international construction firms.

While lawmakers and residents strongly oppose the tolls, PennDOT argues that they are authorized to impose them under the state’s public-private partnership law, which was adopted with bipartisan support in an effort to find new, more efficient ways to fund highway projects.

The locations eyed for tolls include I-80 over the Lehigh River and I-78 in Lenhartsville, near the Berks-Lehigh County line.

Gramian told the panel that the program is needed to address the bridges without taking away funds from other PennDOT projects. She used the example of a bridge carrying I-83 over the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg that will cost an estimated $650 million to replace. She said that figure is more than the agency spends annually on interstate highways, and is roughly one-third of the agency’s total annual budget for road projects.

“Why do we need the P3 program? The question really is ‘what projects won’t we be able to get done without it?’?” Gramian said.

State Rep. Doyle Heffley was clear that he doesn’t believe residents and businesses can bear the cost of tolling the nine proposed bridges. He criticized the agency for failing to be more open about their plans. He said the major bridge initiative was unveiled in the post-election period where lawmakers were out of town, and without any specific bridges named.

“We don’t know what it’s going to cost in tolls. We didn’t know what the bridges were. Is this in any way a transparent process?” Heffley said.

Republican lawmakers have proposed a bill that would stop the P3 program from implementing fees without legislative approval, which is currently in committee.

Lawmakers also heard from the president of a Pittsburgh-based highway contractor, who told the panel that the projects could be completed at less cost, and with more involvement from Pennsylvania contractors, if PennDOT funded them differently. George Mezey, President of Trumbull Corporation, compared it to buying groceries at a convenience store instead of a grocery store.

“At the end of the year, you’ll still have your groceries, but you’ll have paid an extreme premium for those that’s not necessary,” Mezey said.

The majority of the hearing was given to businesses, trade groups and local elected officials who were all opposed to the project. They each offered their perspective on how tolling would affect them.

A representative of the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance said the I-78 bridge could deter warehouses from locating west of the bridge, because they would have to pay a toll to reach them from major metropolitan areas to the east. Katherine Hetherington-Cunfer said Berks’ share of the warehousing industry is smaller than Lehigh’s, but it is growing.

A campground owner from Lenhartsville and the head of the state’s manufactured housing trade group said that tolls would negatively affect their businesses.

Elected officials from communities across the river from Harrisburg expressed concerns about normal residents having to pay the tolls to go grocery shopping, and further separating their communities.

State Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Lackawanna/Luzerne, the committee’s minority chair, said that PennDOT has been forced to turn to tolls because its own funding has been stripped. Carroll said that lawmakers have been unwilling to fund state police and public transit. Instead, they use money from the turnpike and PennDOT, which were supposed to go toward transportation funding. In 2013, lawmakers made Pennsylvania’s gas tax the second highest in the nation.

“I’m not the biggest cheerleader in the world for tolling of bridges, but I’m a realist and I accept the fact that PennDOT has no choice of how to raise billions of dollars for our transportation network,” Carroll said.