South Fayette and Collier townships and Bridgeville Borough will file a lawsuit Friday in Commonwealth Court to stop the proposed electronic tolling of the Interstate 79 bridge at the Bridgeville exchange.

The suit argues that imposing a toll on drivers who cross over the bridge in both the northbound and southbound lanes would “have a significant impact” on the two townships and borough “by shifting traffic from the interstate on to local roads for those seeking to avoid tolls imposed,” and that those roads would be unable to handle the additional traffic due to their condition and design. It also said the project would place a heavy financial burden on residents who live near the bridge and travel on the interstate daily.

If successful, the lawsuit would stop the tolling of the bridge and eight others that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) says need to be refurbished. None of the other bridges are located in the Pittsburgh region. PennDOT has not formally announced that it is proceeding with the project, which would also add an additional lane to I-79 in both lanes, and no dollar amount has yet been set for the tolls. The possibility has been raised, though, that the tolls could be $1 or $2 each time a driver crosses the bridge.

Attorney John Smith, who is representing the municipalities, said in a Thursday afternoon press conference in an office building overlooking the highway that the suit “was not a protest lawsuit ... This is a serious lawsuit.”

The defendants in the lawsuit are PennDOT, PennDOT secretary Yassmin Gramian and the state’s Public-Private Transportation Partnership (P3) Board. The plan to toll the nine interstate bridges originated with the P3 board. If it ultimately goes forward, it would enlist private contractors to work on the design and construction of the bridges, with tolls covering the costs. PennDOT has argued that tolls need to be levied so revenue from the state’s gas tax can be used to fund repairs to local roads. Officials with PennDOT have also asserted that the gas tax is no longer adequate to pay for the state’s transportation needs and alternative funding sources need to be tapped.

The suit contends that the P3 board voted to place tolls on interstate bridges last November, but did not specify which ones, and this violates Act 88. The law states that the scope and impact of individual projects must be determined before they can go forward, and a cost/benefit analysis must be carried out. This was not done, the suit alleges.

A PennDOT spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.

Since the proposal to toll the I-79 bridge was announced in February, it has been the subject of universal condemnation by elected officials who represent communities in the vicinity of the bridge and business owners who say it would slam the brakes on growth and economic development.

“It would be horrible for the township and the neighboring communities,” said Gwen Rodi, president of South Fayette’s board of commissioners.

State Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Cecil, criticized PennDOT for moving forward with its bridge tolling plans even though Pennsylvania is expected to receive $4 billion in federal highway and bridge funding as a result of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that has been approved by Congress and President Biden is expected to sign next week. He also said the agency has not done enough to cut costs.

“To say that I am disappointed at PennDOT’s refusal to drop this ludicrous proposal would be an understatement,” Ortitay said.

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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