PennDOT eyes tolls to fund work on nine interstate bridges

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Facing growing demands on its highways, Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation on Thursday named nine bridges on six interstates, including I-95′s mile-long Girard Point Bridge in Philadelphia, that need upgrades and that it will consider for tolling to help generate the cash.

The work on the nine bridges would be costly, easily needing billions of dollars for projects that could take years to complete, according to PennDOT.

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

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; I-83’s South Bridge across the Susquehanna River, a mile from the state Capitol; and Girard Point Bridge in Philadelphia.

The bridges were selected because they are relatively large, costly projects that require improvements sooner, PennDOT said. The agency tried to give geographical balance to the bridges it selected to distribute the impact, it said.

The concept was approved in November by the Public Private Transportation Partnership board, the first time it had approved a plan involving user fees since it was created by a 2012 law, and requires no legislative approval.

However, several Republican senators are sponsoring a resolution to stop it, saying it would hurt the economy, while trucking industry associations oppose it.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Blair, said he is concerned about what he called “PennDOT’s authority to essentially tax and appropriate funds without additional oversight from the General Assembly.”

He is drafting legislation, he said, to strengthen the opportunity for public input and the Legislature’s oversight of the tolling 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. On top of that, the pandemic has kept many people off the roads, delivering another hit to road construction funding.

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, giving grants to 12 state and regional pilot programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Pennsylvania’s gasoline taxes are among the nation’s highest, after a 2013 law raised taxes and motorist fees in an attempt to boost highway funding by more than $2 billion a year, or by about 50%.

But it 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.

Under the program, PennDOT will solicit proposals from private contractors to design, improve and maintain the bridges over a long-term period. Gantries installed at the bridges would read E-ZPass transponders or license plates to collect fees.

PennDOT said it will evaluate the projects over the next year. It expects to issue a request for information to the industry next week and a request for qualifications in the spring.