Appeal period expires for PennDOT plan to toll
Plans for tolling the I-83/South Bridge and eight other major interstate bridges across Pennsylvania are now all but dead.
The appeal period for the state Department of Transportation to challenge a Commonwealth Court ruling that voided the tolling initiative expired on Monday.
Once the court signs off on an agreement to officially end the court cases filed against PennDOT by Cumberland County and several municipalities opposed to the tolling initiative, it will officially close the book on the unpopular proposal PennDOT had put forth to pay the more than $2.2 billion tab for the nine bridges’ repair or replacement.
While a state law known as Act 84 enacted last month by Gov. Tom Wolf rescinded the bridge-tolling plan, a settlement offer that PennDOT made to the municipalities that sued it had the local officials concerned the department might be trying to salvage the tolling plan by appealing the lower court’s ruling to the state Supreme Court.
But a PennDOT spokeswoman said this week the department accepts the court ruling in light of Act 84 that rendered the court cases moot.
Residents, businesses, trucking associations and others raised vociferous objections to the plan that they saw pushing traffic onto local roads, which in turn could exacerbate rush-hour congestion, slow response times for emergency vehicles, hurt local businesses and create new traffic safety problems.
With the tolling of the I-83/South Bridge over the Susquehanna River at Harrisburg all but put to rest, Cumberland County’s planning director Kirk Stoner said, “I think it’s a win for the residents of Cumberland County, particularly those on the West Shore that would have borne the impacts of the tolling project.”
He added: “They’re not going to be burdened by a toll that would generate a lot of bypass and cut-through traffic that would further impact their communities.”
Lemoyne Borough Council President Gale Gallo said once the court approves the dismissal of the cases, “we’ll just breathe a sigh of relief. I think that’s where everybody is at right now. It’s been a long, long road.”
Alissa Packer, Camp Hill’s borough council president, echoed that desire to see this saga end.
She said while she is grateful the county and other municipalities - Lemoyne, Wormleysburg, and East Pennsboro, Lower Allen, West Hanover townships - agreed to share the yet-to-be-tallied bill for the legal costs incurred in the court challenge, “we are confident that the amount we spent was well worth it to prevent a project that would have had much more significant costs to our community in the long term.”
Lee Stinnett, the attorney who represented the county and the municipalities, commended the elected officials who “fought so hard to protect the interests of their residents and businesses. We will continue to safeguard those interests should they be jeopardized again.”
While the case involving Cumberland County and those municipalities temporarily halted the pursuit of the bridge tolling initiative, it was a court ruling in a similar case filed last year by three western Pennsylvania municipalities over the proposed tolling of the I-79 bridge in Allegheny County that invalidated PennDOT’s plan to proceed with its plan.
That ruling applied to nine bridge candidates PennDOT eyed for tolling that also included the I-78 Lenhartsville Bridge in Berks County, I-80 Canoe Creek bridge in Clarion County, I-80 Nescopeck Creek Bridge in Luzerne County, I-80 North Fork Bridge in Jefferson County, I-80 Lehigh River Bridge in Luzerne and Carbon counties; I-81 Bridge in Susquehanna County; and the I-95 Girard Point Bridge in Philadelphia.
The court determined PennDOT “completely evaded” the legislative intent of a law that created the Public-Private Partnership (P3) Board, which approved in November 2020 the tolling concept PennDOT had put forth to pay for the bridge work that would be overseen by a private partner through a long-term contract.
The court found not only did the P3 board not specify which bridges it had in mind for tolling - which PennDOT didn’t identify until three months later the board’s vote - but the board also failed to consult with people who would be affected beforehand, which the law required.
Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Allegheny County, who worked with officials from municipalities in his county who filed that lawsuit, said in a statement, “I am glad we can finally put this tolling plan to bed. Now is the time to move forward. With the recent enactment of Act 84 of 2022, we have a framework to proceed.”
Act 84 was the result of a compromise reached between the Wolf administration and Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria County, to address concerns that arose from the bridge tolling fiasco.
The law increases the transparency around projects the P3 board is considering. It creates a 30-day public comment period before that board votes on an initiative. And it limits PennDOT’s power to proceed with only optional tolling schemes to pay for new infrastructure while giving the General Assembly more time to assess the projects the P3 board approves.
“I had serious concerns with PennDOT’s authority to essentially tax and appropriate funds without additional oversight from the General Assembly,” Langerholc said in a statement after the law’s passage.
The next step, he said, is to develop a game plan for making the improvements that PennDOT had sought through tolling. He said uppermost in his mind is ensuring Pennsylvania companies benefit from this work.
“That’ll be part of the conversation when we come back in the fall and it’ll continue until those bridges are repaired because I don’t think anybody disagrees that we need solid infrastructure,” Langerholc told PennLive.
During a court hearing in the Cumberland County case, a PennDOT official said the more than half-century-old I-83/South Bridge is near the end of its serviceable life.
“We are seeing significant fatigue cracks,” which can threaten the integrity of the two-beam span, said PennDOT’s acting executive deputy secretary Melissa Batula. Without repairs, she said, it could lead to the imposition of a weight restriction or worse, closing it down.
Cumberland County’s planning director said the need for bridge improvements was never up for debate but “the means by which to address the project is what we objected to.”
He said had PennDOT consulted with local officials before identifying the I-83/South Bridge as a candidate for tolling it would have learned the bridge is used more by local traffic than from vehicles outside a 25-mile radius as is the case with the other bridges.
Stoner said the county wants to work in partnership with PennDOT and others in the region to find alternate funding sources to pay for the bridge’s repair or replacement. In fact, on Wednesday, the county commissioners approved a letter of support regarding PennDOT’s application to the federal bridge improvement program for the I-83/South bridge improvements.
“It’s another example that there are other funding sources out there that could be used for this project … without putting an overly heavy tax burden on our residents and then forcing them to deal with cut-through traffic,” he said.