Public hearings scheduled for PennDOT's toll expansion plan

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation will begin accepting public comments in November over its proposals to toll the I-80 Canoe Creek and I-81 Susquehanna bridges.

The two bridges are part of a controversial private-public partnership plan to implement user fees, or tolls, on nine major interstate bridges across Pennsylvania that would fund the structures’ repair or replacement.

Residents can submit online comments for Canoe Creek beginning Nov. 1 and for Susquehanna on Nov. 8, for up to 30 days after each launch date.

The Canoe Creek bridges project is estimated to cost $90 million to $105 million, while the Susquehanna project will cost between $175 million and $200 million. The toll money, if the proposals are approved, will pay for construction, maintenance and operation of the bridges.

The cost to replace all nine bridges will total about $2.2 billion, per PennDOT estimates.

PennDOT first released details about the tolls in February in the Pathways Major Bridge P3 Initiative, which was authorized under Act 88 of 2012 to leverage private investment in transportation projects. So far, Pennsylvania’s P3 program has executed more than 500 rapid bridge replacements across the state. But this is the first time the program has sponsored a plan with a user fee.

PennDOT’s proposal to toll the bridges outraged many members of the General Assembly, who said increasing costs for drivers amid a pandemic was “unconscionable.”

“I was shocked to hear of PennDOT’s tacit approval in November 2020 to impose tolls on any interstate bridge in this Commonwealth, which was not the legislative intent of the Public-Private Transportation Partnership (P3) Program,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc, R-Johnstown, in a recent Pennsylvania Senate Republican release.

Langerholc sponsored a bill earlier this year that would stop the P3 board’s decision to include user fees as part of the development, thus halting PennDOT’s plan to toll the nine interstate bridges. The Senate approved Senate Bill 382 in April, and that legislation is currently awaiting consideration by the House Transportation Committee.

The proposal to implement user fees comes as PennDOT said it struggles to acquire enough funds to maintain and make needed repairs on 40,000 roads and 24,500 bridges. PennDOT’s persistent budget gap, which currently sits at $9.35 billion, will widen to $14.5 billion over the next decade without action, it claims.

PennDOT’s funding problem is compounded by Act 89, a 2013 law that restructured the gas tax to raise more revenue for road and bridge repairs, hasn’t kept up with demand. About 75% of funding for transportation projects comes from the state's gas tax revenue, according to PennDOT.

In August, Gov. Tom Wolf’s Transportation Revenue Options Committee published a report that recommends a patchwork of taxes and fees on drivers, electric vehicles and packages delivered by transport companies and chain grocery stores. It also calls for corridor tolling, surcharges on ride share services, increased registration fees and a phase out of the gasoline tax.

The committee’s proposed options would raise about $11.4 billion over the next decade, enough to cover PennDOT’s state-level funding gap with some leftover funds.

Public comment for two of the other bridge projects, Lenhartsville and South Bridge, opened Oct. 25. State officials will hold an in-person open house for the Lenhartsville project on Monday, Nov. 1 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Kempton Community Center and two for the South Bridge project on Tuesday, Nov. 9 from 1-7 p.m. at Harrisburg Mall (East Shore) and on Wednesday, Nov. 10 from 1-7 p.m. at Penn Harris Hotel (West Shore).

PennDOT is expected to announce the public comment period for the remaining five bridges in the coming days and weeks.

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