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Lawmakers unhappy about tolls reminded of law they passed

April 29, 2021 GMT

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania state lawmakers unhappy that Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration is considering tolling nine major bridges were warned about that prospect when they passed legislation in 2012 delegating approval to appointees of the governor and top lawmakers, they were told Tuesday.

Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Luzerne, reminded colleagues of that vote at the end of an Appropriations Committee hearing during which more than a half dozen committee members questioned Transportation Secretary Yassmin Gramian about potential bridge tolls.

“It turns out it’s difficult to fund transportation,” Carroll told colleagues during the hearing.

But, Carroll said, “those were decisions that we made, that this General Assembly made in an effort to find an easy path forward for an admittedly very complicated problem.”

Carroll, himself, voted against the 2012 bill, but other lawmakers now criticizing potential tolls backed the bill.

The Public-Private Transportation Partnership Board, created by a 2012 law, in November voted for the very first time to approve toll projects. The “major bridge” program allows the Department of Transportation to toll bridges to fund improvements.

PennDOT last week named nine bridges that it said it is considering tolling to pay for the reconstruction.

Tolls would be between $1 and $2, probably both ways, raise about $2.2 billion and could last from the start of construction for up to 30 years, the length allowed under current law, Gramian told lawmakers last month.

Tolling would be electronic and collected through E-ZPass or license-plate billing, PennDOT has said. The money collected on a bridge is supposed to go to its construction, maintenance and operation.

The bridges are I-78′s Lenhartsville Bridge in Berks County; I-79′s bridges over State Route 50 in Allegheny County; I-80′s bridges across Canoe Creek in Clarion County, Nescopeck Creek in Luzerne County, North Fork in Jefferson County and the Lehigh River, near Wilkes-Barre; I-81 over the Susquehanna River in northern Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna County; I-83′s South Bridge across the Susquehanna River, a mile from the state Capitol and downtown Harrisburg; and I-95′s mile-long double-decked Girard Point Bridge across the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

PennDOT has said it selected major bridges badly in need of repair and balanced its selections by geography to limit the impact on any one area.

A number of lawmakers on Tuesday warned that the impact of the tolls’ cost will hurt commuters and commercial haulers.

Transportation Committee Chairman Tim Hennessey, R-Chester, suggested borrowing the money.

But Gramian responded that payments on a bond would have to come from existing highway construction funds and take money from other, future construction projects.

States are seeing stagnant revenue from gasoline taxes, the major source of cash for highway construction, as vehicles are becoming more fuel-efficient and more people buy electric cars.

As an alternative, states are exploring user fees as a long-term replacement for declining gas tax revenue. The federal government has not increased the gas tax since 1993 and is encouraging states to explore user fees.

PennDOT has said its current highway and bridge budget for construction and maintenance is about $6.9 billion per year, less than half of the $15 billion that is needed to keep Pennsylvania’s highways and bridges in good condition and ease major traffic bottlenecks.

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Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/timelywriter.

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This story was first published Feb. 23, 2021. It was updated April 29, 2021, to correct how long tolls to several major bridges in Pennsylvania could last once construction starts in 2023. It could last up to 30 years, not three or four.