(The Center Square) – The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation said Tuesday specifics about a plan to toll nine bridges across the state remains under development, though drivers may see the fees as soon as 2023.
“Nothing is final,” Transportation Secretary Yassmin Gramian said during a House Appropriations Committee budget hearing. “Nothing is definite yet.”
The plan – a result of a public-private partnership program – would generate $2.2 billion over 30 years to fund repairs and maintenance for nine bridges in Pennsylvania nearing the end of their life cycles.
Ballooning maintenance costs and dwindling funding from the state and federal governments over decades means PennDOT operates with the less half of the $15 billion it needs to keep its roads and bridges updated.
But proposals over the years to raise revenue have been met with consternation from Republicans in the Legislature, who insist other avenues exist for boosting infrastructure funding, and deride the plan as yet another tax increase from Gov. Tom Wolf.
"This is not the time to be having this conversation," said Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Wellsboro. "I hope that we can press pause."
Transportation Committee Minority Chairman Mike Carroll, D-Hughestown, challenged his Republican colleagues to propose alternatives instead of further delaying action – echoing requests he and other Democrats have made in years past.
“Because absent a solution that generates that sort of money, I don’t know what PennDOT is supposed to do,” he said. “It’s time for us to be responsible and respect the obligation that PennDOT has.”
House Appropriations Committee Majority Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, described the tolling proposal as “reasonable,” but said the General Assembly should consider how other states accomplish the same goal. In Maryland, he said, the states uses a combination of its taxes on personal income and gas to fund infrastructure repairs and upgrades.
Pennsylvania’s solution will look different, he said, due to the nature of its problem. As the state with the second most bridges in the country, he said, that also face extreme temperature fluctuations and weather patterns across all four seasons, maintenance is more complicated and costly.
“We have to start reforming the way we do things,” he said.
The tolling proposal, developed under PennDOT Pathways Major Bridge Public-Private Partnership (P3) Initiative, would contract with developers to build electronic tolling terminals that will charge motorists between $1 and $2 per trip.
The identified bridges include the I-83 South Bridge in Dauphin County; the I-78 Lenhartsville Bridge in Bucks County; the I-79 Bridgeville Interchange in Allegheny County; the I-80 Canoe Creek bridges in Clarion County; the I-80 Nescopeck Creek bridges in Luzerne County; the I-80 North Fork bridges in Jefferson County; the I-80 Lehigh River Bridge in Carbon and Luzerne counties; the I-81 Susquehanna Bridge in Susquehanna County; and the I-95 Girard Point Bridge in Philadelphia.
Gramian said the earliest the first toll could go into effect would be 2023. She said debate exists over whether tolls should begin once construction starts or whether it should be delayed.
“If you start tolling earlier, the rate is going to be kept lower,” she said. “That’s why the federal government is encouraging that if you start tolling at the beginning of construction, you can keep the collection rate lower.”
For many Republicans, however, the plan’s lack of specificity or understanding of its economic impacts leaves them concerned.
“This is going to have a tremendous impact on everybody,” said Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Weissport. “… On the farmers, the manufacturers, on every working class resident in this commonwealth. I just don’t think it was very well thought out.”
Gramian said the department’s main goal is to keep toll rates “reasonable,” but argued that doing nothing will cost more money and jeopardize public safety.
“These bridges are not in a safe condition,” she said. “The money we are spending year over year to maintain these bridges is exorbitant. It's a huge, huge huge drain.”
“This is important,” she added. “The safety of the people is our responsibility.”