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Tolls thought-about for I-83 Bridge in Harrisburg; opponents name it ‘a brand new tax’ – PennLive

Crossing the I-83 South Bridge in Harrisburg could begin to cost motorists around a dollar or two in each direction, unless they choose to find another way to cross the Susquehanna River.

That 61-year-old bridge, sometimes referred to as the John Harris Bridge, is on the list of nine spans that the state Department of Transportation has identified as candidates to impose new tolls. The goal is to pay for their improvements and finance other road and bridge projects.

Alternative funding sources are needed since revenue from the state’s gas tax – one of the highest in the nation – have fallen off due to reduced travel and the evolution of electric vehicle technology, said PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian.

PennDOT unveiled the list of bridge candidates eyed for tolling during a virtual news conference with reporters on Thursday.

If approved, tolls would take effect on the bridges in the fall of 2023 at the earliest, but some lawmakers are objecting to the plan. In addition, several environmental and societal studies must be completed before a final decision is made as to their suitability for tolling, said Ken McClain, PennDOT’s Alternative Funding Program director.

The studies includes gauging the public’s response to the idea as well as exploring its impact on nearby low-income and minority neighborhoods and surrounding communities and their roadways.

The bridge tolling initiative, which would be done through a public-private partnership, is eyed as a way to cover the estimated $2.2 billion price tag associated with replacing or rehabilitating the nine bridges and maintaining them over a 30-year period. Any additional revenue generated once payments are made to the private development entity could be used for other nearby road and bridge projects.

Along with the I-83 bridge, the list also includes:

The multi-lane South Bridge, which has about 120,000 vehicles cross over it daily, is slated for a complete replacement which is estimated to cost $600 million to $800 million, McClain said. Price tags to fix other bridge candidates are just as steep if not steeper.

That is one of the reasons those bridges – all of which were designed more than half a century ago and are coming to the end of their life cycle – were chosen, he said.

Along with that, he said they considered the feasibility of the construction on the bridge candidates beginning in two to four years to maximize near-term benefits from the current low-interest rates. Additionally, PennDOT officials intentionally distributed the bridge candidates across the state to void impacting just one area.

Ken McClain, PennDOT’s Alternative Funding Program director, describes the department’s bridge tolling initiative during a virtual news conference with reporters on Thursday.
Screenshot from the PennDOT news conference

“Right now PennDOT does not have all of the necessary money required to implement the act of construction of some of these major bridges” on interstates, he said.

The tolls would be collected through a high-speed, all electronic system that would have tolling equipment installed over the roadway to record tolls. Tolls would be collected through the use of EZ-Pass or by taking a photo of a license plate and sending a paper invoice to the registered vehicle owner.

The Pennsylvania P3 Board approved the bridge tolling concept in November. This idea requires no legislative approval since the Legislature set up the board through 2012 state law to encourage this type of public-private partnership.

However, the Legislature, by passing a concurrent resolution that requires the approval of both chambers, could prevent it from moving forward. Already, some Republican senators have signaled their intention to try to do that.

At a transportation funding hearing last month, Sen. Scott Hutchinson, R-Venango County, said if PennDOT is asking motorists to pay more to use a bridge they’ve traveled across for years, they should get something more for their money.

“It’s a fairness issue,” he said. “There’s probably a better justification when you say new project, two lanes to four lanes, maybe that should be taxed as opposed to something that already exists.”

Republican Sens. John DiSanto, who represents Dauphin and Perry counties, and Mike Regan, who represents Cumberland and York counties, came out strong in their opposition to the tolling concept on Thursday.

They said they intend to use every means available to them, legislative or otherwise, to prevent Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration from moving forward with it.

DiSanto said it amounts to “a new tax on area residents who travel daily between the East and West Shores for work, shopping and entertainment.”

Regan said the plan is not well thought out “and would amount to hundreds if not thousands of dollars on individual drivers that use this route daily during a given year. I cannot support this tax increase on these hard working men and women who are just trying to get to work.”

Both also complained about a lack of transparency in the process that brought this initiative forward. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria County, said he is looking to address the transparency issue through a resolution he is offering.

“I have serious concerns with PennDOT’s authority to essentially tax and appropriate funds without additional oversight from the General Assembly,” he said in a statement issued following PennDOT’s news conference. “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.”

McClain addressed a portion of the fairness argument associated with the tolls.

He said the only ones who would pay it are the travelers who use the tolled bridge, which would include those who drive electric vehicles as well as out-of-state drivers.

Beyond that, he spoke of the economic benefits derived from the construction jobs this initiative would create as well as draw to the areas where the tolled bridges are located.

“It’s very important to maintain the economic viability of Pennsylvania,” McClain said. “Anytime a new business tries to come in and invest in a new location, the first thing that they oftentimes look at is the strength and predictability of the infrastructure in place next to where they’re wanting to go.”

He said an educational campaign to help people understand the need to generate alternative ways to fund transportation needs will soon begin. He said anytime there’s change, it can draw pushback. But initial market research showed 52% of Pennsylvania citizens were either positive or neutral on tolling and the rest opposed it.

The Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association does not favor the idea.

“In the pursuit of the safety of the motoring public, the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association supports the rehabilitation or replacement of aging infrastructure but cannot accept the invoice for it,” said Rebecca Oyler, the association’s president and CEO.

“The trucking industry already pays almost 40% of all taxes owed by Pennsylvania motorists despite driving only 9% of the miles. We continue to pay our fair share. Our industry, along with every other business that relies on trucks to deliver their products in Pennsylvania will suffer if PennDOT is permitted to move forward with its bridge tolling agenda.”

Among the ideas that will be studied before moving forward with tolling a bridge is looking at ways to mitigate the impact on low-income communities through such ideas as discount programs, commuter discount programs in urban centers where there is a transit option, or perhaps expanding the transit services, McClain said.

Each bridge will be looked at separately, he said. The toll rates may vary based on project costs and when the P3 contract ends in 30 years, the tolls would be lifted unless the department would enter into another P3 arrangement.

If the tolling initiative proves successful, McClain said it could be the wave of the future to fund more bridge projects.

“The jury will be out on it but our focus is on these nine right now,” he said.

Jan Murphy may be reached at jmurphy@pennlive.com. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.

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