HARRISBURG – The Department of Transportation has given the green light for a proposal that could add tolls on an undetermined number of bridges.

Which bridges might be involved has not been announced.

“We hope to be able to share the first proposed list of bridges or package of bridges in the first quarter of 2021,” said Alexis Campbell, a PennDOT spokeswoman.

The head of the state’s trucking lobbying group said his organization was “blindsided” by the move. 

“I’m upset, we weren’t consulted and we usually are,” said Joe Butzer, interim president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association. “Our industry was blindsided by this coming forth.”

The move to allow tolls on what PennDOT is describing as “major bridges” is intended to provide revenue to help maintain the bridges at a time when the state has been trying to adjust to decreasing gas tax revenue, Campbell said.

Ted Leonard, executive director of the Pennsylvania AAA Federation, said his organization didn’t know the tolling plan was in the works either.

The plan also would help ensure that the state is getting revenue from out-of-state travelers who are crossing the bridges, Campbell said.

“We’re currently taking no position on it until more details are available such as how many and which bridges would be tolled and what the funding would be used for,” Leonard said.

He added though that AAA believes that if there are tolls, then the revenue should only be used to maintain and operate the bridge that’s being tolled.

Under PennDOT’s plan, private operators would contract with the state to take over the management of the bridge, then they’d pay for repairs to the bridge and collect tolls to recover their costs, Campbell said.

Currently, the only tolled road in Pennsylvania is the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

"There are some bridges between Pennsylvania and New Jersey that are tolled, but PennDOT isn’t assessing those tolls. They’re collected when you return to (Pennsylvania) from New Jersey by the Delaware River Port Authority,” Campbell said.

Butzer said that trucks already bear a heavy share of the burden of gas tax revenue as Pennsylvania has the highest gas tax in the country. The same 2013 law that increased the gas tax also increased license fees. To a trucker that meant that a fee that had been less than $1,700 jumped to $2,400.

Butzer said that tolls are also a problem for truckers because they will have a hard time passing the cost on to customers.

Trucking firms can charge fuel surcharges based on the cost of fuel, but if they try to bill for tolls, customers balk.

“They’ll say, ‘It’s not my fault you took that route, so I’m not paying it,’” he said. “So we just lost $25 one way” in the cost of the toll.

The financial pain comes at a bad time for trucking firms. Companies that do a lot of business with restaurants have been devastated the same way the restaurant industry has, he said.

“We’ve lost members,” Butzer said. A survey earlier this summer found that trucking companies estimated that their revenue had dropped 15-65% due to the economic shutdown, he said.

“That’s not including those that lost 100% of their business because they closed,” he said.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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