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PennDOT pushes forward on tolling bridges, but now lawmakers are hitting the brakes with new legislation

The plan includes tolling 9 bridges, with the I-83 John Harris Memorial South bridge among those slated for repairs that connects Harrisburg to Cumberland County.

The PennDOT proposal that would toll 9 bridges in Pennsylvania to fund repair work now has a hurdle to jump as Republican lawmakers have introduced new legislation that would void the effort. 

But, PennDOT counters the proposal is only possible because of a measure that had Republican support.

The ability for PennDOT to institute tolls on these bridges comes from Act 88 of 2012, and the Public-Private Partnership, or P3, which gives a private company room to toll for repairs, which then gives PennDOT the money acquired. In 2012, then-House Bill 3 passed the GOP-majority chamber, giving PennDOT the power to use tolls as user fees for transportation-related funding. 

However, Republicans said the way Act 88 is being interpreted by PennDOT is not how the law was intended and some of them called that 'user fee' a tax.

"Let me be clear, this wasn't the legislative intent of Act 88 of 2012 and the alleged approval by the P3 board must be scrutinized" said PA Senator Wayne Langerholc, (R) Cambria County, Chair of Senate Transportation Committee. Langerholc said he firmly believes PennDOT does not have the legal authority to proceed and that's why he and other Republicans gathered Thursday to introduce Senate Bill 382

The bill promises to:

- Void the PennDOT Pathways Major Bridge P3 Initiative and require reconsideration by the P3 Board following the new process outlined in Senate Bill 382

- Create checks and balances on the P3 Board by clarifying any P3 project with a user fee shall be deemed disapproved unless the General Assembly approves

- Increase transparency by requiring PennDOT to publish a detailed analysis prior to the P3 Board’s voting meeting, and mandating PennDOT to distribute a copy, with or without a user fee, within 24 hours

- Incorporate public input by creating a new 30-day public comment period

The Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing on January 25 to examine what they call loopholes of the P3 Initiative and the Committee expects to consider Senate Bill 382 this month. 

"Our answers to fix revenue problems within this Commonwealth cannot be merely met with tacit approval for another tax, another fee, or another toll on the backs of the hard working families of this great Commonwealth," said Langerholc as he and other Republicans also noted Pennsylvania already has one of the highest gas taxes in the nation. Senator Mike Regan, (R) Cumberland County also echoed that sentiment as he said P3's were previously looked at in the past as a manner to avoid raising gas taxes. Now, he says people will have to pay both gas taxes and a toll. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation says nine of its interstate bridges in the commonwealth are in desperate need of repairs, and the way to pay for the funding needed to improve them is through tolls.

PennDOT believes the plan would generate $2.2 billion over 30 years. The bridges are all more than 60 years old, which PennDOT officials believe are at the end of their useful life and need to be replaced.

One of the bridges slated for repairs is the John Harris Memorial South Bridge on Interstate 83, which connects Harrisburg in Dauphin County to Lemoyne and the West Shore area of Cumberland County. PennDOT believes construction and tolling wouldn't start until late 2023-early 2024.

"Penndot did this in a very stealth manner using an obscure board and bending and stretching and using legal sleight of hand to say they have approval to tax these bridges," said Senator Scott Hutchinson, (R) Venango County.

Tolls on the bridge would run either $1 or $2, and PennDOT is still determining if drivers will be tolled one or both ways. Tolls would be collected via EZ-Pass or toll-by-plate method.

Along with the I-83 bridge, the other bridges PennDOT says are up for tolling and repairs include 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.

PennDOT is taking public comments on the proposal through March 29 on their website. Comments may be submitted through a comment form, via email to i83SouthBridge@pa.gov, by leaving a message on PennDOT's hotline at 717-743-1005, or by sending a letter to I-83 South Bridge Project, Attn: Derek Mitch, 2140 Herr Street, Harrisburg, PA 17103.

 Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa released this statement: 

"We have a transportation funding crisis here in Pennsylvania. Several years ago in the process of writing and passing Act 13, we looked at the issues and needs of our infrastructure community and outlined the process the P3 board could take to raise funds – including user fees and tolls for our bridges, many of which are graded as structurally unsound. Safe infrastructure supports all sectors of our economy, we should not delay funding for critical projects."

Read PennDOT's full statement:

"PennDOT is strongly opposed to Senate Bill 382. Not only does it undercut the benefits of public-private partnerships (P3), but it also politicizes a process designed to foster innovation and efficient public-private collaboration. It adds unnecessary bureaucracy that the original legislation was designed to avoid, and forces proposed P3 projects to compete with other important issues and priorities for the legislature’s attention and action. In addition to requiring both chambers of the legislature to take up individual legislation on any project with proposed user fees, the bill adds a layer of public input requirements that are already part of PennDOT’s normal process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Act 120.

To demonstrate, based solely on the bill’s proposed requirements for a project to receive P3 Board approval, the Rapid Bridge Replacement (RBR) initiative to replace 558 bridges could not have even been introduced until at least a year later than it was under the existing law.  Under the bill as proposed, much of the project development and public input on each of the 558 bridges that occurred after the approval of the RBR project by the P3 Transportation Board would have had to be completed upfront; and therefore, PennDOT and the traveling public at each of the bridges would not have benefitted from the inclusion of the private sector in the transportation development and construction process because of the lack of funding as has been articulated over the past many years.  Under this proposal, PennDOT or any public entity would need to fund all these activities upfront and would not benefit from the innovation and funding that partnerships afford. 

Public-private partnerships have long had bipartisan support. In fact, an expansion of Pennsylvania’s P3 law was recommended in the Republican House Infrastructure Task Force report in late 2019, which stated that an expansion of the use of P3 “not only leverages private investment, but creates innovative ways to complete projects, improving efficiency.”

The impetus for this bill is clearly PennDOT’s Major Bridge P3 Initiative, which was approved by the P3 board in November 2020 , a Board that includes representatives appointed by all four legislative caucuses.  Public comment on alternative funding strategies was collected in November and December 2020 and environmental and public input requirements are being met for each bridge as well as the overall PennDOT Pathways funding initiative. The nine candidate bridges have reached or exceeded the end of their expected life. The Major Bridge P3 would allow this critical work to be funded with toll revenue, essentially making these projects self-sufficient. Without the P3 Initiative, the funding would be pulled from other interstate projects AND districts would have to continue spending significant maintenance dollars, taking away paving, pothole repairs and other maintenance activities. And these bridges need this work and they need it soon – one bridge inspection with a significant adverse finding would require immediate action and a complete reshuffling of interstate projects.

For example, if the I-83 South Bridge, with an estimated cost of up to $650 million, would need to be funded through traditional means, it would wipe out a full year of interstate project funding and nearly one-third of PennDOT’s current $1.9 billion annual overall construction program, which would limit regional projects across the state as well. To illustrate, the attached is the current Interstate Transportation Improvement Program (numbers may change daily). Projects equal to the cost of any projects added to this list would need to move into future years and projects in future years would become unfunded. Conversely, funding projects currently on this program with tolls will free up an equivalent dollar amount to accelerate later projects and add projects to the list.

The Major Bridge P3 will also help stimulate the state’s economy: every $1.5 billion invested in bridge replacement or rehabilitation creates 15,656 jobs and generates $3.28 billion for our economy. Please see recently developed specifics, where available, of statewide economic impacts on a per-bridge basis in the attached summary.

Transportation funding is at a crisis point. We have been sounding the alarm for years on the unsustainability of the gas tax and lack of federal funding, as well as the urgent need to look at other options for funding our transportation network. This bill would significantly stifle Pennsylvania’s ability to use public-private partnerships, which have long been lauded on both sides of the aisle as a much-needed tool to address our growing transportation needs."

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