State mulls options to bridge tolling

Rebecca Oyler

CLARION - If the state's plan to toll selected interstate bridges -including those in Clarion and Jefferson counties - is rejected, it will have to seek others sources to pay for repairs or replacement of those spans.

To that end, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has established the Transportation Revenue Options Commission (T-ROC) to identify funding sources to replace the state's gasoline tax.

During a hearing last week in Clarion, where the area's federal and state lawmakers heard testimony in regard to the state's initiative, PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian talked about the alternative plan.

According to Gramian, proposals under review include:

- Doubling the state's vehicle registration fee.

A vehicle sales tax increase from 1.93 to 2.14 percent.

- An electric car fee of $150 to $200.

- A mileage-based user fee that charges 3.16 to 7 cents per mile.

- Statewide tolling of interstates.

- Traffic congestion pricing a toll to use major roadways during rush hours in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Allentown.

The commission will present its report in August.

The Pennsylvania Public-Private Partnership (P3) board on Nov. 12, 2020, approved the Major Bridge Initiative, which allows PennDOT to use the P3 delivery model for major bridges in need of rehabilitation or replacement.

Nine bridges are on the list, including the Canoe Creek bridges in Clarion County and the North Fork bridge in Jefferson County, both on Interstate 80.

During the hearing, a panel of experts offered additional suggestions.

"We agree that transportation infrastructure is critical," said Rebecca Oyler, of the Pennsylvania Motor Trucking Association. "We need to do it in a way that does not disproportionally target specific areas of the state or specific industries.

"Tolls really are a second tax on infrastructure that we are already paying for."

Oyler said there is a need to examine current transportation funding, which would involve reprioritizing that funding and ensuring the focus is on roads and bridges.

"The first thing we would need to do is stop the diversion of transportation funding," she said.

"That means finding alternative funding for the state police, because 11 cents of every gallon of fuel tax we pay goes to the state police. We also need to look at other areas where money is being repurposed."

Oyler noted fines collected as a result of red light violations is going into a grant fund.

"Maybe that should go into a general transportation funding program or the $5 optional county registration fee should not be optional," she said.

Oyler, who is a member of the T-ROC committee, said PennDOT gave committee members a list of initiatives last week.

"They were all taxes," Oyler said. "There was no discussion on repurposing that money or using money more efficiently."

Stephanie Kane, of the Alliance for Toll Free Interstates, said there is "no silver bullet" for transportation funding.

"We need to look at what they are doing in other states," she said. "Things like registration fee and fees on electronic vehicles."

Kane suggested the PennDOT tolling studies might not present the whole picture.

"The economic projections that PennDOT will show will be very rosy. The economic impact studies will show money, money, money without considering the economic impact to businesses who are hurt by it," Kane said. "There are options available that come with far fewer negatives than tolling."

Greg Lander, vice president of Reno-based Klapec Trucking Co., said there must be a focus on areas of saving rather than spending more taxpayer money.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-15), who conducted the hearing on April 1, said "the mentality here is that we have always done it this way. There are things taken out of the transportation dollar, and that doesn't work anymore.

"Our infrastructure creates economic activity. We need Pennsylvania to be open for business. This (tolling) will put business out of business."