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I-Team: Discussions ongoing on PennDOT bridge toll proposal

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EYEWITNESS NEWS (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — There is pushback from lawmakers and community leaders about a PennDOT proposal to impose a $1 to $2 toll at nine bridges in the state, including two of them in Luzerne County.

PennDOT wants to put tolls on these bridges in White Haven as well as another bridge about 22 miles away in Black Creek Township, but community leaders say they will oppose the plan saying it will be a death knell to the region’s economy.

“It’s not a good thing, it’s I think we pay enough with our taxes we pay enough with our registrations we pay enough. I think it’s putting a burden on the public, where’s all the money going to really,” said Rudy Schoch of East Side Borough.

And that is what we heard over and over again regarding a PennDOT proposal to place a $1 to $2 toll on nine bridges in the commonwealth. This is to raise anywhere from $1.6 billion to $2.2 billion to improve major bridges statewide.

“It’s a challenge for us to fund those right now because they are large bridges, they do cost a significant sum of money,” said Kenneth McClain, PennDOT Alternative Funding.

Two of the bridges are in Luzerne County. One in Black Creek Township and another near White Haven. State Rep. Tarah Toohil held a virtual meeting on Friday with business and community leaders to discuss the PennDOT plan.

“On behalf of Luzerne County we have major concerns of the economic impact here. We’ve seen an influx of over 4,000 jobs over the last five years in Luzerne County, distribution, manufacturing, the major part of this is always transportation,” said Dave Pedri, Luzerne County Manager.

“I think we’ve done a lot of really good work to attract businesses to the area but this one definitely has a negative impact from any of the modeling you want to do from manufacturing or distribution perspective,” said Wico Van Genderen, President/CEO, Greater Wilkes-Barre Area Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The owner of K.D. Wolfe trucking in Sugarloaf Township texted a message to the virtual meeting which read in part “Pennsylvania has one of the highest state gas taxes, second only to California. When these taxes were imposed we were told this was to better Pennsylvania’s roads.”

“The concern is perhaps it is a done deal, that’s a definite concern of mine,” said Toohil.

Toohil and others who took part in this virtual meeting want to make sure PennDOT hears these concerns.

“Yes that is a concern about whether or not the administration is going to be willing to listen to us. They said they would be,” said Toohil.

The tentative plan is to have the tolls in place on these bridges by 2023. We reached out to PennDOT for comment for our report.

“Transportation is the backbone of our economy and we must invest to maintain and grow our communities. Poor infrastructure costs both Pennsylvanians and businesses, and deters future investment. If we’re to support Pennsylvania’s economy today and attract growth in the future, we must evolve our transportation funding and assets. In PA every $1.5 billion invested in bridge replacement or rehabilitation creates 15,656 jobs and generates $3.28 billion for our state’s economy.

PennDOT has a current $8.1 billion annual gap in highway and bridge funding needs. We are dependent on gas tax, with 74 percent of our highway and bridge funding coming from state and federal gas taxes. 

The Governor has stated that we will not raise the gas tax. Gas taxes have become a less predictable source of revenue for transportation agencies across the country as passenger vehicles become more fuel efficient and all electric vehicle technology continues to evolve. 

The P3 project has included legislative input and involvement for months. Not only was the process outlined in bipartisan legislation that is almost eight years old, the P3 Board, which includes legislative appointees, voted unanimously on this plan last fall. 

Legislators were invited to an informational session on Pathways, the P3 project, and tolling overall the week before the announcement, and that presentation and recording were shared afterward. The same was done for Metropolitan and Regional Planning Organizations as well as key transportation stakeholders.

The Feb. 18 announcement of candidate locations begins a public involvement process for each location. A thorough environmental, revenue, and route-diversion review will occur, along with public outreach. Toll rates are to be determined, though they’re generally anticipated in the $1 to $2 range.

The I-81 Susquehanna project will address aging pavement and infrastructure along I-81 including the bridge over the Susquehanna River, and to lengthen on and off ramps to meet current interstate design standards and improve safety. Most of the pavement in the corridor is nearly 60 years old, and the Susquehanna River bridges are approaching the end of their serviceable lifespan. Additionally, on and off ramps at the interchanges throughout the corridor do not meet current and future traffic design standards. All structures on the corridor were constructed with reinforced concrete that contains more chloride ion content than modern standards allow. While safe, this type of reinforced concrete has a shorter lifespan than most reinforced concrete used today. Also, the storm system built into much of the corridor has exceeded its serviceable lifespan.

The I-80 Nescopeck Creek Bridges project will provide a safe and reliable crossing over Nescopeck Creek. The project will replace and widen the bridges to provide wider shoulders that meet current standards and accommodate and facilitate future maintenance activities on the bridge. Once complete, the new bridges will improve traffic flow, extend the life of existing infrastructure and enhance traffic safety.

Overall, the PennDOT Pathways Major Bridge P3 Initiative will invest between $1.6 billion to $2.2 billion in bridge replacement and rehabilitation across the state. The Major Bridge P3 Initiative means that bridges can pay for themselves through tolls, allowing other regional projects to move forward.

Funding these bridges with tolls could free up enough funds across the state to: repave about 1,900 miles of highways or interstates; build approximately 730 miles of new interstate lanes; or replace roughly 6,600 miles of guiderail.”

A look at PennDOT’s full proposal can be viewed here.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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