Pennsylvania bridge tolling: 'Haphazard' plan, foreign contractor draw ire of many

(The Center Square) – Funding roads and bridges is getting tricky for Pennsylvania with the decline of gas tax revenue, and a plan to toll bridges across the Commonwealth is drawing heavy criticism from state legislators and the public alike.

The high cost of tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is drawing ire, as is PennDOT’s plans for alternative revenue streams. The bridge tolling plan, which would add tolls to nine bridges across Pennsylvania to raise funds to repair and replace the bridges, has come under fire from residents and state representatives.

“PennDOT just hired a foreign entity to be the lead contractor on what will most likely be over $3 billion in bridge tolling projects. Not a Pennsylvania company. Not an American company. Let that sink in,” state Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Bridgeville, wrote.

“At a time when people can’t afford to pay anymore to drive, PennDOT is trying to add tolling to nine bridges across the state to pocket more money from the people,” he wrote. “That $2.2 billion [cost] has now turned into $2.5 billion, and PennDOT admitted at a budget hearing that the number is expected to go higher because of inflation and the increased costs of materials.”

Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Clearfield, was wary of adding tolls while inflation drives costs on most everything higher, and signing a 30-year contract for bridge maintenance when Pennsylvania has more time to consider the options.

“The time is right here; there’s a significant amount of dollars coming down federally, and we’re in a position where we can control this ... and ensure that we’re not on the hook for 35 years to an international company,” Langerholc said.

Pennsylvania bridge tolling: 'Haphazard' plan, foreign contractor draw ire of many

“It’s our goal to do what’s best for Pennsylvanians and not just enact just another toll, fee, tax on the hardworking backs of Pennsylvanians,” he added.

Langerholc has proposed a Drive Smart Act that has a variety of transportation-related reforms, including authorizing PennDOT to issue a $2 billion bond for improvement projects instead of the bridge tolling program. PennDOT, he said, could have written its request for proposals to ensure that the lead contractor could be a Pennsylvania-based company.

“They could’ve broken it down in scope,” Langerholc said. “It’s haphazard and the residents of Pennsylvania deserve better, quite frankly.”

At a February Senate hearing, PennDOT, District 6 Executive Kenneth McClain said the contractor would have to perform 30% to 35% of the work, and then sub-contract to other contractors, which would be Pennsylvania-based. With a $2.5 billion contract, PennDOT required contractors to be a certain size to absorb a program of that size, he noted.

“Would it be possible to break up the contract? Could that have happened?” Langerholc asked McClain.

“Anything is possible,” McClain said. But he mentioned that many Pennsylvania companies might not have as much experience with public-private partnerships or financing a project of such magnitude.