Bridge tolling plan scrutinized by House panel

A person walks past the Interstate-95's mile-long double-decked Girard Point Bridge in Philadelphia on Feb. 24. PennDOT named several bridges including the Girard Point Bridge that it said it is considering tolling to pay for the reconstruction.

Transportation Secretary Yassmin Gramian defended a proposal to add tolls on nine interstate bridges as part of the state’s struggle to confront the “unavoidable reality” that gas tax revenue isn't providing enough funding to fix the state’s roads and bridges.

The problem will only grow as more electric vehicles hit the road, she said before the House transportation committee on Wednesday.

“Gas taxes have become a less predictable source of revenue,” Gramian said, adding that “this goes beyond passenger vehicles" as commercial vehicles are increasingly being converted to electric-power, as well.

Motorists in Pennsylvania pay 58.7 cents per gallon in state gas tax, according to the Tax Foundation. But the federal government hasn’t increased its gas tax of 18.4 cents since 1993, Gramian said.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced earlier this month that he would like to wean the state off the gas tax and announced the formation of a task force to come up with the plan to do that.

The bridge tolls would cost between $1 and $2 and would generate about $2.2 billion, beginning in 2023.

The bridges PennDOT has targeted for tolling are:

I-78 Lenhartsville Bridge Replacement Project (Berks County);

I-79 Widening, Bridges and Bridgeville Interchange Reconfiguration (Allegheny County);

I-80 Canoe Creek Bridges (Clarion County);

I-80 Nescopeck Creek Bridges (Luzerne County);

I-80 North Fork Bridges Project (Jefferson County);

I-80 Over Lehigh River Bridge Project (Luzerne and Carbon counties);

I-81 Susquehanna Project (Susquehanna County);

I-83 South Bridge Project (Dauphin County); and

I-95 Girard Point Bridge Improvement Project (Philadelphia County).

Industry groups acknowledged the need for the state to confront the transportation funding crisis but questioned whether PennDOT’s tolling plan is the way to go.

Robert Latham, executive vice president of the Associated PA Constructors, said even though the state increased the gas tax in 2013 — Pennsylvania has the second highest gas tax in the country — the amount of funding PennDOT has had available to spend on road and bridge work has lagged in recent year.

The state spent just $1.6 billion on road and bridge capital projects last year, the lowest amount since 2006. PennDOT is projected to spend about $1.9 billion on such projects this year, he said.

Part of the problem has been that the state has been shifting money out of the gas tax fund to help cover the costs of state police.

That funding shift “has a huge effect in how we got here,” he said.

Latham said his group wouldn’t be opposed to a plan that includes tolls as part of a broader revamp of transportation funding, but they’re not sold on PennDOT’s strategy for using public-private partnerships to replace the nine interstate bridges.

Gramian said PennDOT’s plan to use the public-private partnership allowed the agency to move toward tolling the bridges without first getting the General Assembly to pass legislation authorizing the plan. The General Assembly in 2012 passed legislation authorizing PennDOT to use public-private partnerships but lawmakers have said they don’t believe the intent of that law was to allow PennDOT to enact tolling in this manner.

Legislation to halt PennDOT’s tolling plan has already begun moving in the state Senate. The Senate transportation committee approved Senate Bill 382, last week, with all Republicans supporting the measure and all Democrats opposed.

Representatives of the state’s trucking industry told the House panel that adding tolls will put them at a disadvantage in trying to compete with trucking firms in other states.

Gramian has argued using tolls is one way of trying to ensure that out-of-state travelers share the cost of the repair work.

Joe Butzer, interim president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, said out-of-state truckers will have to pay the tolls but they likely won’t be having to cross the tolled bridges as often as in-state truckers.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

 

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CNHI PA State Reporter

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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