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Pennsylvania Bridge-Tolling Proposal Dies

The state’s plan to toll nine bridges across the state to help fund their replacement and maintenance has collapsed amid court rulings and negotiations between Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican lawmakers.

(TNS) — As a result of court rulings and negotiations between Gov. Tom Wolf and Republicans in the General Assembly, the plan to charge tolls on nine bridges across Pennsylvania to pay for their replacement is dead.

Currently, the state Department of Transportation has no other plan to replace them. The bridges were scheduled for tolling because they were deemed economically important and the state didn't have the estimated $2.5 billion to replace them. Bridges scheduled for tolls of $1 or $2 included the Interstate 79 span near Bridgeville.

Asked about what happens now, PennDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Kuntch said Friday, "I don't have an answer for that." She said that if Mr. Wolf signs a bill passed Thursday in the Senate, as expected, "the department will evaluate and determine next steps."

Republicans in the Legislature have been against tolling since PennDOT announced the concept in late 2020. The state's Public-Private Transportation Partnership Board had authorized PennDOT to consider charging tolls and using the revenue to pay a private developer to replace the bridges and maintain them for 30 years.

But three months later, when the state announced the nine bridges that would be considered for tolling, communities near the structures were almost unanimously opposed.

In recent weeks, Commonwealth Court ruled in separate cases filed by communities in Cumberland County and the Bridgeville area that the state failed to follow proper procedures by not identifying the bridges and seeking public comment from the communities involved before they approved the concept.

At the same time, Republicans, led by state Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr. of Johnstown, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, were pushing legislation to more clearly define the board's powers and procedures.

As part of the state budget process last week, legislative leaders negotiated with the Wolf administration and settled on a bill that includes a series of changes to kill the tolling proposal and set up procedures to require greater participation in the process by the General Assembly. The bill requires PennDOT to analyze any public-private partnership proposals, gives the public a 30-day comment period before a project is voted on by the board, and provides the General Assembly more time to review and approve board-authorized projects.

"Bridge tolling is dead now. Thou shalt not toll," Mr. Langerholc said in an interview Friday. He characterized bridge tolling as an additional tax on select residents already facing record-high inflation and gasoline prices.

"One of the things we were able to do ... after everyone said it wasn't possible ... was to bring all parties to the table and reach a compromise."

Mr. Langerholc said the court decisions "absolutely" encouraged the administration to talk about the power of the partnership board, but he said there were indications before the rulings that the state could be rethinking its approach.

"I don't think in and of themselves [the court decisions] pushed the needle," he said. "The court decisions may have pushed [the administration] over the edge."

Mr. Langerholc said the administration has given him no indication how the state will move forward on replacing the nine bridges or how high a priority they will be.

"I hope that's part of the conversation going forward," he said. "Now we can pick up the work on which of these bridges needs to be done and how that moves forward."

Mr. Langerholc said he remains "optimistic" that long-term decisions on PennDOT funding can be made this year despite the impending election of a new governor in November. Mr. Wolf is finishing his legal limit of two terms.

Mr. Langerholc noted the new state budget increases funding for PennDOT by $175 million as a result of moving money for state police from the Motor License Fund to the general budget.

PennDOT wants to eliminate the state's gasoline tax, which hasn't been growing as much as expected because of reduced driving during the pandemic, gas vehicles that are more fuel efficient and the growth of electric vehicles.

In addition to bridge tolling, a special commission Mr. Wolf appointed last year recommended charging fees for package deliveries and Uber and Lyft rides, among other things, to close an $8.1 billion gap between PennDOT's annual budget and the amount it says it should spend on roads and bridges.

No legislation has been introduced for any of those proposals. Mr. Langerholc has proposed a package of changes that includes issuing up to $2 billion in bonds authorized through a special federal program and charging a mileage fee for electric vehicle owners.

Erin Waters-Trasatt, another spokeswoman for PennDOT, said the administration remains willing to discuss new ways to generate revenue for roads and bridges.

"Beyond our determining next steps, we can add that to date, the Legislature has failed to offer any solutions beyond their approval of this [public-private partnership] initiative that will assist the administration's desire to phase out the gas tax," she said. "The Wolf administration continues to welcome discussions with the General Assembly on alternative funding sources that can replace the gas tax, which is no longer a dependable source of funding to meet all bridge and highway needs in this commonwealth."

Also up in the air is what happens with PennDOT's deal with Bridging Pennsylvania Partners, a group of contractors and investors led by Australian company Macquarie Infrastructure Developments LLC that was chosen to replace and maintain the nine bridges. The state has spent what Mr. Langerholc estimated at $14 million to do preparatory work to seek required federal approval to toll the bridges.

A spokesman for Macquarie had no comment.

(c)2022 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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