HARRISBURG – PennDOT on Thursday released plans to add tolls on traffic crossing nine interstate bridges as part of the agency’s strategy to close a funding gap driven by increased fuel efficiency, increased use of electric vehicles and reduced travel during the pandemic.
PennDOT estimates that the move to add tolls would provide the $2.2 billion in funding needed to replace the bridges, freeing up those dollars to be spent on other roads and bridges.
The idea has already garnered fierce pushback. The head of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association told a Senate committee last month that adding tolls on the interstate bridges would “destroy” the trucking industry in the state. Trucking companies can charge their customers a fee for the cost of fuel, but typically can’t pass along the cost of tolls, he said.
PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian said that the move is needed to address the state’s road and bridge funding shortfall, which was exacerbated by the fact that people were driving less last year.
“Our reliance on funding models from the last century leaves us especially vulnerable to fund losses stemming from volatile economic conditions and the increasing transition to alternative-fuel or electric vehicles,” Gramian said. “This initiative will help us make much-needed improvements without compromising the routine projects our communities and industry partners rely on.”
State Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Richland Township, chairman since January of the Senate Transportation Committee, expressed "serious concerns" about the plan.
“I have serious concerns with PennDOT’s authority to essentially tax and appropriate funds without additional oversight from the General Assembly,” Langerholc said in a statement on Thursday afternoon. “At a time when transparency to our constituents is of paramount concern, we must ensure the voices of our constituents are heard and that they are involved in the process.”
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.
Tolls would not be added to the bridges until 2023 at the earliest, PennDOT Alternative Funding Director Ken McClain said, adding that tolls are expected to start in the $1 to $2 range.
The plan seeks to avoid adding tolls to too many bridges in any one part of the state, McClain said, “to make sure we spread the cost as well as the perceived benefits.”
McClain said that all of the bridges targeted in the plan were built in the 1960s. In addition, they were targeted based on their traffic volumes, and tolling the bridges creates the opportunity to get income from out-of-state travelers who may not fuel up their vehicles and pay gas tax in the state.
PennDOT’s current highway and bridge budget for construction and maintenance is about $6.9 billion per year – less than half of the $15 billion needed to keep Pennsylvania’s highways and bridges in a state of good repair and address major bottlenecks on the state's roadway network, according to the department.
Gramian said that 74% of PennDOT’s budget for road and bridge construction comes from the state’s gas tax. Pennsylvania raised its gas tax in 2013, and motorists in the state now pay second-most in the country on gas tax, behind only California. 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 per gallon since 1993, Gramian said.