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Court puts temporary halt to bridge toll plan

A view of I-80 bridge over the Lehigh River in the borough of White Haven, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.. Carbon County commissioners aren't keen on a plan to toll bridges along Interstate 80 to fund construction projects. Commissioner Chris Lukasevich on Thursday said Pennsylvania residents already pay the highest gas tax in the United States, and feels that state should better use existing funds. (Warren Ruda/Standard-Speaker via AP)

A state appeals court has temporarily stopped the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s plans to toll nine interstate highway bridges – including one in Carbon County.

On Wednesday, a judge granted a request to halt the department’s Major Bridge P3 Initiative while a lawsuit over the legality of the plan continues in court.

One of the nine bridges included in the P3 proposal carries I-80 over the Lehigh River between East Side Borough and White Haven, Luzerne County.

The decision by Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler prohibits PennDOT from taking any further action on the P3 initiative, including tolling bridges, holding hearings and meetings, and spending any funds.

A public meeting on the I-80 bridge plan was scheduled to take place Wednesday afternoon at Mountain Laurel Resort in Kidder Township, but was canceled. An announcement posted on the website for the hearing said PennDOT is currently reviewing the judge’s opinion.

PennDOT wants to use the revenue from the tolls to fund the estimated $50 million replacement cost for the 57-year old I-80 bridge. The plan called for eastbound vehicles to pay a toll, which PennDOT estimated at $1-2 for passenger vehicles.

The judge’s order also said PennDOT also must stop any design, studies, right-of-way acquisition, construction, and any action under existing agreements with contractors.

PennDOT had completed some preliminary work, and was aiming to begin tolls in August.

The hearing which was canceled was part of an ongoing study, required by the Federal Highway Administration, into the environmental impact of the project.

In March, PennDOT selected a team of contractors from multiple countries for the project.

The injunction was ordered so the Commonwealth Court can hear a lawsuit brought by Cumberland County and three municipalities located near one of the bridges in the P3 plan. The municipalities argue that the P3 legislation does not give PennDOT the authority to charge tolls on existing roads.

The decision was welcomed by Republicans who have also called PennDOT’s plan to toll bridges an overreach of its authority.

State Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Bedford/Cambria/Clearfield, said in a statement that in light of the decision, Gov. Tom Wolf should work with legislators to find a compromise.

“The court’s ruling on the preliminary injunction is restoring proper checks and balances on PennDOT’s power,” Langerholc said.

Congressman Glenn Thompson, Pa.-15, said that the decision holds PennDOT accountable and requires it to follow the law.

“I hope this serves as a warning to those within the agency who think the public is not watching,” he said.