It’s estimated that the Interstate 79 corridor carries 87,000 vehicles every day, and if a proposal by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) comes to fruition, the drivers rocketing through in those cars and trucks could end up paying a toll of $1 or $2 when they cross the bridge near the Bridgeville exit.

The tolls would be collected in order to pay for the replacement of the northbound and southbound bridges that were first put in place 56 years ago and were last rehabilitated in 1998. It would also help pay for widening I-79 in that area.

The project is one of nine large-scale interstate bridge projects the state is looking at paying for through tolls rather than the gas tax, which is how road and transportation projects have been funded in Pennsylvania.

Construction would not get underway until 2023 at the earliest. Nevertheless, it has already generated controversy, with some elected officials from the area saying brakes need to be firmly applied when it comes to that span being tolled.

PennDOT unveiled its plans Thursday. The proposed work on I-79 is part of its Pathways Major Bridge Public-Private Partnership Initiative. It envisions private entities handling the design, construction and maintenance of major bridges across the commonwealth, with tolls paying for the work. Proponents argue that tolls would free up scarce transportation dollars for local bridges and roads. They also contend that the gas tax is simply not cutting it as a way to help pay for large-scale transportation projects. The amount of revenue that’s collected has declined as vehicles have become more fuel-efficient, and revenue has declined in the last year as the COVID-19 pandemic has led many workers to clock-in at home and cut back on commuting and other forms of travel.

They also argue that PennDOT’s annual budget for bridge maintenance and construction is close to $7 billion, less than half of the $15 billion that is needed.

According to PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian, “Our reliance on funding models from the last century leaves us especially vulnerable to fund losses stemming from volatile economic conditions and the increasing transition to alternative-fuel or electric vehicles. This initiative will help us make much-needed improvements without compromising the routine projects our communities and industry partners rely on.”

Drivers would pay the tolls through E-Z Pass or license plate billing. Exact rates will be determined once negotiations with contractors are complete, according to Alexis Campbell, a spokeswoman for PennDOT. The tolls would cover the costs of construction, maintenance, operations and toll collections.

The other bridges under consideration are located in Berks, Clarion, Luzerne, Jefferson, Carbon, Susquehanna, Dauphin and Philadelphia counties.

The bridge on I-79 is in South Fayette Township, and township spokeswoman Andrea Iglar released a statement saying the township opposes tolling it because “it would hamper much-desired commercial development in the area.”

The statement continued, “South Fayette businesses and residents value our convenient highway access, and implementing a new toll would be a step backward.”

State Sen. Devlin Robinson, R-Bridgeville, said he was concerned that if the bridge was tolled, drivers would seek alternate routes and clog those roads. It would then create safety issues for drivers and first responders.

“As one of the fastest developing areas in Allegheny County and Southwest Pennsylvania, this proposal would have catastrophic effects on the current and future business development in a region that has seen recent growth and significant investments,” Robinson said. “Not only does this proposal reduce the ability of this region to be competitive in attracting new businesses, but it is a major deterrent to existing employers looking to expand or relocate.”

State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Carroll, serves on the Senate Transportation Committee, and said she would be looking for a different way to fund the bridge projects.

“The tolling proposal cuts right to the heart of Pennsylvania’s ongoing efforts to promote economic development,” she said. “This user fee would increase shipping costs for businesses, both in bringing supplies in and sending products out. The revenue Pennsylvania may gain in tolls could mean the loss of even greater revenues that we could see through business development and job creation.”

State Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Cecil, said he was “stunned” by the proposal, and slammed Gov. Tom Wolf, saying his “reckless proposals are devoid of reality.”

He said he supports the bridge work, but said a different way to fund it should be found.

“To add insult to injury, the tolling is proposed to start in 2023, before construction can even begin,” Ortitay said. “People will be paying for the privilege to travel through a construction zone.”

As part of a study of its environmental impact, PennDOT will examine how tolling the bridge will affect nearby communities, including the impact it will have on traffic. The study is projected to be completed later this year, and its findings will be made available for public review and comment either virtually or through an in-person public meeting.

Staff Writer

Brad Hundt came to the Observer-Reporter in 1998 after stints at newspapers in Georgia and Michigan. He serves as editorial page editor, and has covered the arts and entertainment and worked as a municipal beat reporter.

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