PA Senate: Bill halts plan to toll bridges

State lawmakers approved a bill last week that halts the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s plan to toll nine interstate bridges. 

Senate Bill 382 passed the upper chamber 28-19. The House must now act or move on similar pending legislation of its own. Widespread opposition to the tolling initiative, announced in February, exists among Republicans and some Democrats in both chambers.

The bill, which reforms the state’s P3 process, prevents its board members from adopting plans with user fees without prior legislative approval. It also adds reporting requirements and a 30-day public comment. The P3 process was enacted under Act 88 of 2012 to leverage private investment in public transportation projects.

READ: PennDOT to Senate: Bridge tolls won’t be permanent

Prime sponsor Sen. Wayne Langerholc, Jr., R-Johnstown, said Tuesday he sponsored the legislation after the P3 board announced its “vague” plan to toll nine interstate bridges to fund repair and replacement of the structures with little public involvement or awareness. Board members agreed to the resolution in November. Then three months later, it released a “user fees” plan as a means to pay for it.

It’s the first time the program sponsored a plan with a user fee. The 2014 Rapid Bridge Replacement Project, for example, secured $899 million through a public-private partnership to replace 558 bridges statewide with no tolling requirement.

PennDOT estimates the cost to replace the nine structures in its Pathways Major Bridge P3 Initiative will cost $2.2 billion. Studies regarding the impacts on traffic, the economy and other factors are ongoing, PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian told the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.

‘A blank check’

“I remain extremely concerned with the size, scope and precedent this initiative could have on the Commonwealth,” Langerholc said Tuesday. “A one-page resolution from PennDOT that does not fulfill the conditions required by legislation that created the P3 statute deserves further scrutiny by the General Assembly.”

Langerholc chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. During discussions with Gramian last week, he said, despite the agency’s well-known funding issues, current law gives the P3 board “a blank check” signed by the General Assembly.

“Theoretically, you could toll every bridge in this commonwealth. You could,” he said. “What I’m looking at is a very dangerous precedent we are traveling down here.”

PennDOT remains about $8.1 billion short of the money necessary to maintain and repair 40,000 roads and 24,500 bridges. The gap will widen to $14.5 billion over the next decade without action. 

Gas tax revenues

The 2013 law, Act 89, that restructured the gas tax to raise more revenue for road and bridge repair hasn’t kept up with demand, either. Gramian said the pandemic’s impact on traveling reduced the agency’s revenues by $533 million. 

About 74% of funding for transportation projects comes from the state’s gas tax revenue, according to PennDOT. 

Estimates from Associated Pennsylvania Constructors suggest that more than $15 billion in gas tax revenues over the last 20 years have been siphoned into the general fund to support expenses “not related to highway improvement,” compounding the issue further.

Langerholc said his measure gives the state a chance to formulate other solutions. PennDOT doesn’t support the bill.

“The Senate voted today to hit the brakes on this reckless plan,” he said. “The answer for transportation funding cannot just be to raise taxes or fees on the back of hardworking Commonwealth residents.”

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Christen Smith

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania’s General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.