A Republican-backed bill that would kill PennDOT's plan to toll nine bridges — including the Lenhartsville Bridge on Interstate 78 — is headed for a vote in the Senate.
The state Senate Transportation Committee is trying to put the brakes on PennDOT’s plan to charge motorists a $1 or $2 toll.
The committee voted 9-4 on March 17, with Republicans all voting for the bill to block the toll and Democrats voting for PennDOT’s plan.
The bill moves to the full Senate, but a vote has not yet been scheduled.
The impetus for the bill is PennDOT’s Pathways plan to look for funding solutions that include imposing the fee. The fees would be used to fund the rehabilitation and/or replacement of dilapidated bridges.
In January, PennDOT said it has an $8 billion shortfall and is looking for ways to raise money to help pay for its crumbling infrastructure, especially on interstate highways.
Sen. David G. Argall, a Schuylkill County Republican who also represents portions of Berks, said the bridge tolling plan was a huge surprise to lawmakers and their constituents.
“We are still trying to learn more about how the governor and PennDOT made these decisions on their own without public review,” Argall, who is not on the committee, said in an email. “This plan was a huge surprise to the Senate and House and the people we represent."
Sen. Judy Schwank, a Ruscombmanor Democrat, said Monday that it's premature to begin tolling bridges until other options to pay for infrastructure improvements are explored.
Schwank, who is not on the committee, said the state has to look at other solutions such as vehicle registration and license fees.
She said she agrees the gas tax should no longer be used as the primary revenue source for road and bridge projects.
With the Lenhartsville Bridge, the plan is to complete an environmental study on how the project will impact the local area. PennDOT has not yet scheduled a virtual meeting on the project.
Construction is expected to begin in 2023 and 2025 and take two to three years to complete.
The bridge carries the interstate over the Maiden Creek and Route 143 in Greenwich Township.
All three township supervisors have opposed the tolling. Residents have said the detours will have a negative impact on local roads.
Sen. Wayne Langerholc, a Cambria County Republican who chairs the transportation committee, said during a virtual hearing in March that he supports critical infrastructure improvements for safety, mobility and economic recovery efforts.
However, he said, the answers cannot be merely met with new taxes, fees and tolls on the backs of Pennsylvania’s hardworking families and businesses.
“I welcome a broader discussion to address the transportation funding challenges facing the Keystone State,” he said. "We need to have these difficult discussions now."
Langerholc said the coronavirus has added to the problem with fewer people driving.
Sen. John Sabatina Jr., a Philadelphia Democrat and minority chair of the committee, opposed the bill.
"The conversation needs to begin on how we fund transportation," Sabatina said.
Sabatina said the bill has some merit, but it must be looked at now in the context of the major transportation revenue problems facing Pennsylvania.
Sen. Camera Bartolotta, a Greene County Republican, said she had severe reservations about charging motorists who are just getting back to work.
A total of $15 billion is necessary to meet the needs of highway and bridge repair, but only $6.9 million in available, said Larry S. Shifflet, PennDOT deputy secretary of planning.
Pennsylvania is losing revenue as a result of reduced revenues from gas taxes, which pays for 73% of the bridge and roads repairs.
Anyone pumping gas is paying to fix Pennsylvania’s aging infrastructure.
For every gallon of gas, there’s a 57.6 cent tax to PennDOT and an 18.5 cent tax to the federal government.
An increase in motorists driving electric vehicles is also adding to the transportation funding problem, Shifflet said.
The automotive industry has committed $225 billion to electric vehicles. Ford is planning to have 40 models of electric vehicles and Chrysler is expected to have 12 by 2022.
However, there are no additional taxes, like the gasoline tax, for use of charging stations for electrical vehicles.