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Pennsylvania Lawmaker Wants to Limit Tolls on State Bridges

Wayne Langerholc has introduced legislation to slow down bridge tolling as a way to finance the state’s transportation needs. Previously, the state’s use of public-private partnerships has been a bipartisan success.

(TNS) — A lawmaker wants to apply the brakes to a proposal to toll nine bridges across the state – including the South Bridge in Harrisburg – and come up with a broader plan for financing Pennsylvania’s transportation needs.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc, R- Cambria County, has introduced legislation that would limit the powers of the independent public-private partnership board that authorized the bridge tolling plan.

His bill would require legislative approval of any projects that the P3 transportation board, as it is called, considers that involves a user fee. PennDOT strongly opposes the bill.

Langerholc said at this point, he is opposed to the concept of tolling the bridges. He sees his bill as necessary because if this bridge tolling concept were to advance, it could set a precedent for other projects that impose a tax or fee on Pennsylvanians. “We’re going down a very dangerous road,” Langerholc said. He is holding a news conference on Thursday where he will be joined by a number of his Republican Senate colleagues who have voiced opposition to the bridge tolling idea in PennDOT’s Major Bridges initiative.

Langerholc said passage of this legislation is a top priority for his committee, saying time is of the essence particularly if the plan to toll those nine bridges is to be abandoned.

Already, PennDOT has spent approximately $1.9 million to date in consultant fees related to its Major Bridge P3 Initiative, according to department spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt. PennDOT has said the tolls would generate revenue to replace or repair bridges which are nearing the end of their lifespans.

“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,” according to a statement from PennDOT.

Among the reasons why it believes the bill is a bad idea, the department says it politicizes a process set up to foster innovation and efficient public-private collaborations. Furthermore, “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.”

The General Assembly established the P3 transportation board in a 2012 transportation funding law. The board approved the tolling concept in November.

That set PennDOT on a mission to identify which bridges in need of costly replacement or rehabilitation might be good candidates for tolling. The list of nine bridge candidates was released last month. Immediately, it drew objections from the public, trucking industry and lawmakers.

PennDOT Secretary Yasmin Gramian cited decades of inaction by the federal government on a transportation funding program. She also pointed to a decline in the revenue generated from the gas tax due to people driving less or driving more fuel-efficient cars - or electric-powered vehicles. As a result, Pennsylvania is facing a transportation crisis.

She said PennDOT now faces what it projects is a shortfall of $8.1 billion annually for its highways and bridge improvement program.

Gramian said by using a public-private partnership to replace or rehabilitate the nine bridges, it would free up more than $2 billion in PennDOT’s budget to address other road and bridge projects.

“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,” according to the PennDOT statement.

Moreover, it states the bridge tolling initiative would stimulate the economy, saying every $1.5 billion invested in bridge replacement or rehabilitation creates 15,656 jobs and generates $3.28 billion for the state’s economy.

Rep. Mike Carroll, D- Luzerne County, who serves on the P3 transportation board, said absent federal support, “PennDOT’s plan and the 3P Board’s plan to toll nine bridges is the best possible solution among the solutions available. If there is another solution available that generates a billion or more dollars, I’m all ears and I’m hopeful the Senate Republicans have some proposal that will generate that kind of money.”

He suggested one place to start would be to stop transferring the $700 million out of the Motor License Fund to help fund the state police budget and pay for that out of the state’s general fund.

“We wouldn’t have to add a penny to the gas tax. We don’t have to bill for miles traveled. We don’t have to toll a bridge and we would generate $700 million in rounded numbers but there hasn’t been an appetite to do that in a real way other than the modest $30 million reduction annually since three years ago,” Carroll said.

It’s not just Senate Republicans who dislike the bridge tolling idea. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told the Pittsburgh CBS affiliate KDKA on Tuesday, “we can’t slap a toll on every mile of road or every bridge and expect that to work, so we got to have some big picture solutions, too.”

Buttigieg also indicated he is open to the idea of tolling I-80 but said it was a local decision. Tolling I-80 was an idea that was thought to be a way to address the state’s transportation funding needs in 2007 but the federal approval never came.

Langerholc said he is hearing rumblings that some federal transportation infrastructure bill may be in the works that would be beneficial to Pennsylvania.

But in the meantime, he said by stalling the bridge tolling plan, he hopes it will force a discussion at the state-level that doesn’t automatically go to imposing new taxes or fees or tolls on Pennsylvanians.

“I’m hopeful this will bring everyone back to the table and make it a part of a broader comprehensive transportation funding discussion on how we can meet these needs – and there are many,” he said. “My hope is we can get to that point.”

(c)2021 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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