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Congressman Thompson Op-Ed: History of PA Turnpike Should Raise Concerns About Bridge Tolling

May 13, 2021
In The News

Toll roads have existed in one form or another for the past 4,000 years, in order to help facilitate the movement of goods and people. The 1937 opening of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, a toll facility, had the private sector play a significant role in financing the construction. Around the same time, the Pennsylvania Turnpike was in its early design stages. The high risk and uncertainty of such a large project gave pause to many post-Depression Era bankers, who feared their investments would not bear fruit. President Roosevelt’s New Deal created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Public Works Administration, which purchased Turnpike bonds and supported construction jobs that would usher in a modern toll road, the first of its kind. Upon completion, the Turnpike estimated all debt would be retired and the road would revert to the state highway system, free of tolls, by 1954.

 

Why is this snapshot of history so important today? PennDOT has proposed tolling nine major bridges throughout the Commonwealth. PennDOT’s Secretary, Yassmin Gramian, testified last week in Harrisburg and stated tolls would only remain in effect for the length of the contract with the private developer responsible for replacing and maintaining the structures. By her account this could be 10-15 years. On May 4th, the Secretary responded to several questions I had posed, which tells a different story. I find it problematic that in less than a week after testifying in Harrisburg, by her own account, the estimated lifespan of the tolls has more than doubled to 30-35 years.

 

More than a decade ago, I along with a group of legislators, business leaders, and grass roots advocates fought a proposal to toll the length of Interstate 80, which would have put the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission in charge of operations. We were successful and the federal government ultimately rejected the plan. We demanded transparency and oversight, which exposed corruption. As a result, a Grand Jury was convened, careers were sunk, and officials were indicted. Today, more than 67 years after the tolls were supposed to be removed, the Pennsylvania Turnpike holds the infamous label of “World’s most expensive toll road,” and the Turnpike Commission finds themselves carrying upwards of $12.5 billion in debt.

 

While the public-private partnership, or P3 model, has been utilized in Pennsylvania to conduct more than 500 rapid bridge replacements, many legislators in Harrisburg have expressed serious concern with PennDOT, taking it upon themselves to levy taxes in the form of tolls. As individuals residing in counties that have proposed tolling locations learn more, they have become overwhelmingly opposed. On April 7th, my office conducted a random online survey of more than 500 residents of Jefferson County, home to the proposed North Fork Bridges tolling site. It has been found that 87% opposed tolling for the purposes of rebuilding and replacing the bridges and 90% opposed allowing PennDOT to use toll revenues on other projects throughout the Commonwealth. An identical survey conducted in Clarion County found 90% of participants opposed tolling the Canoe Creek Bridge along I-80 for the purpose of rebuilding and replacing the bridge. Equally, 90% of respondents were opposed to using toll revenues on other projects.

 

While Pennsylvania’s infrastructure is sorely in need of considerable, long-term, and sustainable investments, PennDOT should heed public sentiment on this wildly unpopular plan and perhaps learn from the Turnpike’s past shortcomings. We do not need to go down this road again.

Thompson serves Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District which includes Clearfield, Elk and Jefferson counties.