Pennsylvania House panel endorses re-do on public-private partnerships

November 10, 2021

Keith Goble


Work continues at the Pennsylvania statehouse for a do-over on tolls.

Nearly a decade has passed since the General Assembly approved legislation to authorize the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to create a public-private partnership board. The state’s authorization to use public-private partnerships covers roads, bridges, rail, transit and parking facilities.

In November 2020, PennDOT announced that it received permission to launch the Major Bridge P3 Initiative, which allows the state to install tolls on major bridges that are in need of repairs. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration backs the initiative.

Since then, legislators have pursued reform of the public-private partnership statute.

The House Transportation Committee voted 16-9 on Tuesday, Nov. 9, to halt the current bridge toll plans. Senate lawmakers have already approved the reform legislation – SB382.

Bridge toll plans

The one-year-old Major Bridge P3 Initiative identified the following nine bridges as candidates for tolls:

No final decisions on tolls have been made.

Reversal on tolls

Senate Transportation Chairman Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, has described the Major Bridge P3 Initiative as permitting the state DOT the authority to “essentially tax and appropriate funds without additional oversight” from state lawmakers.

In an effort to head off tolling plans, Langerholc introduced SB382. Speaking on the Senate floor, he described his bill as increasing transparency, public input and proper checks and balances on P3s.

The legislature and the governor would also be required to endorse any toll plan.

The bill would also void the Major Bridge P3 Initiative. The board that created the initiative would remain intact.

House Transportation Committee discussion

Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, told committee members the 2012 law was approved by the legislature in good faith that lawmakers would have an administration to work with on decisions about public-private partnerships.

Instead, Heffley said the Wolf administration misused its authority. He cited the “backdoor antics” from a year ago to launch the Major Bridge P3 Initiative at a time when there was not sufficient time for the legislature to take action.

“It really shows why Senate Bill 382 is now needed … because you have an administration that just ran roughshod over the policies and procedures that were built into the P3 bill,” Heffley said.

The Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association and others in the industry have testified in opposition to adding tolls to bridges in the state. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association also opposes tolls as a means to enhance transportation revenue.

Heffley added that tolls would be devastating to businesses that rely on interstates to move product.

“It’s a double tax. Those costs can’t be passed on to the consumer.”

Rep. Dianne Herrin, D-Chester, said she is concerned about needed work being delayed because of any requirement for the legislature to approve projects.

SB382 awaits additional consideration on the House floor.

Alternative to tolls

In August, Langerholc announced a plan to help address the state DOT’s $8.1 billion budget deficit for infrastructure repairs.

Specifically, his pursuit would tap a portion of federal funds to provide immediate relief for the design and construction of roads and bridges. Additionally, it would prioritize “innovative federal financing” over the state DOT’s bridge tolling initiative.

Dubbed the DRIVE SMART Act, Langerholc’s plan would serve as a stop-gap until a better solution for transportation funding can be approved.

Some of the key proposals included in the plan:

  • Reform the public-private transportation partnership statute and void the PennDOT Pathways Major Bridge P3 Initiative.
  • Authorize PennDOT to bond for the Interstate Transportation Improvement Program under the federal Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles program.
  • Reduce the transfer from the Motor License Fund to the Pennsylvania State Police while ensuring a reliable, sustainable funding source for troopers.
  • Increase finds for traffic safety laws that receive the most violations, such as unregistered vehicles.
  • Enhance penalties for offenses in active work zones.
  • Create a five-year pilot program for electric vehicles to pay a mileage-based user fee or opt-out and pay an annual fee of 400. LL

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