Lawmakers, Witnesses Examine Proposed Bridge Tolls
CLARION — Pennsylvania U.S. Representative Glenn “GT” Thompson hosted a public hearing in Clarion Thursday to examine the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s new Major Bridge Public-Private Partnership (P3) Initiative with local lawmakers and witnesses representing vast groups of the public who could be impacted.
PennDOT’s P3 Initiative proposes to collect tolls at certain bridges around the state in order to help pay for rehabilitation projects. The North Fork bridges on Interstate 80 in Jefferson County and the Canoe Creek bridges on I-80 in Clarion County are two project candidates. Both proposed projects are within Thompson’s 15th Congressional District.
Those speaking as witnesses included Yassmin Gramian, secretary, PennDOT; Rebecca Oyler, president and CEO, Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association; Greg Lander, vice president, Klapec Trucking Company located in Reno, Venango County; Tracy Becker, executive director, Clarion Area Chamber of Commerce; and Stephanie Kane, communications director, Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates.
It was noted by several of the government officials throughout the meeting how upsetting it was that Gramian was only present for the first 15 minutes of the nearly two-hour hearing.
Gramian explained that Gov. Tom Wolf was holding a cabinet meeting. Thompson later said during the meeting that his team would collect any questions panelists had for Gramian, and will submit those to her.
Each of the four remaining witnesses took their turn explaining how the tolling of I-80 bridges would impact the state, and local area in particular.
Oyler shared statistics about the trucking industry within the state, and outlined the impact more strain on such businesses would have.
“We represent an industry comprised of 37,440 trucking companies in the Commonwealth, the majority of which are small family businesses,” Oyler said. “The trucking industry employs more than 320,000 hard working men and women in Pennsylvania, one in every 16 workers in the Commonwealth is employed directly in transportation, and countless other jobs are indirectly related. Our industry is critical to many others, manufacturing, agriculture, warehousing supply chains, and the central consumer goods distribution depends on trucking in every corner of our state.”
She went on to say that the trucking industry is in favor of well-funded infrastructure, but that those in the industry are already paying most of the bill.
“Trucking delivers America. The industry has gone above and beyond in one of the most trying years of our nation’s history,” Oyler said.
This set the stage for Lander to speak, who has the firsthand experience of running a privately-owned trucking company. He explained that tolling and increasing costs of trucking within Pennsylvania will eventually force his business and others like him to look at their opportunities outside the state.
“Klapec Trucking is a local employer, employing nearly 100 individuals. We’re constantly hiring. The majority of our employees come from the local schools and training facilities making us one of the top employers in the area,” Lander said. “It is my belief that traveling through Pa. will be too expensive for shipping and truck organizations like Klapec Trucking. These tolls will elevate pricing of all materials and Pa. is making it impossible for companies to be competitive, forcing them to relocate out of our Commonwealth.”
Kane focused on the negative impacts tolls have had in other states that have implemented them. She focused particularly on the North Carolina Triangle Expressway. She said in 2018, about 37 percent of revenue went to collection, operation, enforcement, and labor, which is a large amount not going directly to the projects meant to be funded by these tolls.
She also mentioned that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation is currently facing a lengthy lawsuit as an outcome of using the same federal bridge exemption that PennDOT is relying on.
State Sen. Cris Dush, who represents Jefferson County as part of the 25th District, later asked Kane to elaborate on this, and she explained that when tolling seems to be targeting a specific industry, as this tolling seems to target trucking, it opens up the possibility of a lawsuit. Rhode Island DOT has been in a lawsuit for this reason since 2018, and is still ongoing, she said.
Many of the panelists and witnesses agreed that the timing of the announcement enhanced the unease around the initiative, as it was not announced until the General Assembly was preparing to dissolve for the year. This gave the General Assembly no time to properly respond, or deny it within the allowed time frame as they have the power to do.
“So they rolled out this proposal with no specifics, no specific bridges, no specific dollar amounts, just a general statement that they want to toll bridges on interstate highways,” said Sen. Scott Hutchinson.
Hutchinson questioned Kane and Oyler when they first heard about this proposal. They echoed his sentiment about the lack of transparency PennDOT had when announcing the proposal. Neither of them knew about it until after the P3 Board had voted. Kane said it was “artfully done if you don’t want to get a lot of kickback.”
Oyler noted the bridges the initiative is considering tolling were not even announced until after the deadline had passed for the General Assembly to disapprove of the board’s resolution.
Oyler later suggested a better way of funding such projects would be to stop diverting transportation funding to other areas such as the state police, and find alternative funding mechanisms for such areas, and repurpose other money.
“For example, the existing red-light enforcement money that’s raised is going into a grant fund. Maybe that should go into the general transportation funding program,” Oyler said.
She said the infrastructure and funding conversation needed to be had, but it needed to be had on a wider scale than just the possibility of tolling as the funding option for bridge projects. This sentiment was received well by all participating in the hearing.