Editorial

The Observer-Reporter building in Washington

A proposal has been put forward to have drivers pay a toll every time they cross over the bridge on Interstate 79 near the Bridgeville exit starting in 2023 or thereabouts.

The amount that is being talked about? A dollar or two.

OK, having $1 or $2 snatched from your E-Z Pass account every once in a while isn’t going to lead to a spiral of destitution. But what about drivers who aren’t crossing that bridge while on their way to a sunny vacation spot? What about the drivers who have to get over that bridge going to and from their jobs every day? The costs would start to seriously add up.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the toll is $2. That would be $4 a day a driver would have to fork up. Multiply that by five workdays, and that’s $20 a week.

Then, let’s also assume the driver is fortunate enough to have two weeks of paid vacation, and they pay $20 a week for 50 weeks of the year. That works out to an even $1,000 per year.

That might be pocket change for folks on their way to the executive suites at Southpointe or downtown Pittsburgh. But for people who have to travel to part-time jobs, or full-time jobs that don’t pay that well, $1,000 a year is a considerable outlay. And if the price of gasoline starts to inch up after the COVID-19 pandemic starts to simmer down, as many forecasters believe it will, then the commute for a lot of people is going to get a lot more expensive.

The bridge on I-79 at the Bridgeville exit is in need of repair, like all too many roads and bridges across Pennsylvania. It was built in 1965 and last rehabilitated in 1998. It is one of nine interstate bridges the state is looking at repairing through a public-private partnership that would have private companies handle the design and construction work, and have it all be paid for through the tolls. The project around the Bridgeville exit would also see a portion of I-79 be widened in each direction. That’s also a laudable goal, considering that more than 80,000 vehicles pass through that stretch of road every day.

But are tolls the best way to pay for it? We don’t think so.

Johnathan Peters, a professor of finance at the College of Staten Island in New York, pointed out that tolls are “a regressive form of taxation. This can be very, very painful for a low-income household. It could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for the working poor.”

Officials with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation have argued that the commonwealth needs to find new ways to finance road work. Pennsylvania’s gasoline tax, the second-highest in the nation, is not the reliable source of revenue it once was thanks to more fuel-efficient vehicles being sold and economic fluctuations that cause gas consumption to spike and subside. The very real possibility of electric vehicles being just over the horizon adds another complication.

Fair enough. Other sources of funding do need to be found. But not tolls, at least not on the bridge near Bridgeville.

It’s just a bridge too far.

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