PennDOT’s bridge toll program receiving criticism from lawmakers
November 4, 2021
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is accepting comments for the I-80 Canoe Creek Bridges Project, but at least one federal lawmaker is not happy about it.
On Monday, PennDOT announced that the public can watch a virtual public meeting about the I-80 Canoe Creek Bridges Project and submit comments. The video can be accessed at any time from Nov. 1 through Dec. 1 here. That link also includes a form for submitting comments, also ending Dec. 1.
I-80 Canoe Creek Bridges Project
The I-80 Canoe Creek Bridges Project is part of PennDOT’s larger Major Bridge P3 Initiative. Approved by a legislative board last November, the Major Bridge P3 Initiative allows PennDOT to fund bridge work with tolls. Two bridges at the western end of I-80 over Canoe Creek in Clarion County are being considered for the program.
More than 30,000 vehicles will cross the two bridges by 2025, according to PennDOT. Trucks will account for half of that traffic. Nearly 60 years old, the dual bridge span has already gone through several repairs. The westbound bridge is currently rated in poor condition. Both need to be replaced.
However, PennDOT is facing an $8 billion annual deficit, due mostly to lower fuel tax revenue as vehicles become more fuel-efficient. Replacement of the I-80 Canoe Creek bridges is estimated to cost between $90 million and $105 million.
The Major Bridge P3 Initiative funds the replacement or rehabilitation of nine major bridges throughout Pennsylvania with tolling. That allows PennDOT to spend its funds on other projects in that region, which it otherwise would not have money to complete. The initiative will save PennDOT up to $2 billion in transportation projects funding. That savings can fund repaving of 1,900 miles of highway or build 730 miles of new highway lanes.
PennDOT’s District 10 is trying to sell its case to include the I-80 Canoe Creek bridges in the Major Bridge P3 Initiative. However, some lawmakers are not happy about either the proposed project or the entire initiative.
U.S. House rep expresses concerns
Although PennDOT has explained the need for the I-80 Canoe Creek Bridges Project, lawmakers representing the region are not happy about the funding mechanism.
On Tuesday. U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-15th District) issued a statement that is critical of the project. Along with other public officials, Thompson received a briefing of the project from PennDOT on Monday. The I-80 Canoe Creek bridges are in his district.
Thompson is arguing that PennDOT is trying to “steamroll” the public comment process for four bridge toll proposals along I-80, including the Canoe Creek bridges. He also alleges that PennDOT has shared few details to elected officials. Additionally, elected officials have not been given “adequate time to ask meaningful questions about their flawed proposals.”
Furthermore, Thompson claims that PennDOT has enough money to pay for the project itself.
“Pennsylvania requires a reliable funding mechanism to maintain and replace existing infrastructure, but the Commonwealth collected $4 billion in revenue in September 2021, which is 14% higher than anticipated and currently has a $628.3 million budget surplus,” Thompson said in a statement. “I remain concerned these proposals are shortsighted, will leave lasting negative impacts on our communities and businesses, and place further tax burdens on Pennsylvanians.”
State lawmakers are resisting the Major Bridges P3 Initiative in its entirety. In August, state Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee introduced a bill that would get rid of the initiative and fund transportation projects by other methods, which include bonds, increasing fines and penalties and reducing funding to the Pennsylvania State Police that derives from the Motor License Fund.
When reached for comment, a PennDOT spokesperson said that Monday’s public official briefing provided updated information, including tolling only one direction, reducing the number of tolls drivers would pay, diversions off I-80 and proposed financial mitigation strategies for low-income individuals.
Regarding the revenue Thompson claims, PennDOT stated that those numbers reflect general fund revenues, not revenues that necessarily apply to PennDOT. The department points to falling fuel tax revenues, which make up 78% of highway and bridge funding, much higher than nearby states.
PennDOT reminded people that the nine bridges being considered are candidates. No final decisions regarding tolls have been made.
“Hearing from the public is an essential part of project development, especially one where tolls are being considered,” PennDOT told Land Line. “PennDOT looks forward to continued collaboration with transportation stakeholders, the legislature, and the public as we work together to find reliable, sustainable funding for our transportation networks.” LL