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Pennsylvania drivers face prospect of added bridge tolls

Truckers who travel through Pennsylvania are waiting to see what bridges could soon have tolls on them following a decision by a state authority to allow the fees as part of a public-private partnership.

The authority that regulates public-private partnerships in Pennsylvania recently authorized the state’s Department of Transportation (PennDOT) to study implementing tolls on various bridges throughout the state, with the revenue from the tolls to be used for maintenance of the tolled bridges or with excess going to maintain other tolls. The program has been dubbed the Major Bridge P3, P3 being the abbreviation for a public-private partnership. 

But the move has left the head of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association (PMTA) angry. 

“That’s the problem with the whole thing,” Joe Butzer, interim president of the PMTA, told FreightWaves. Butzer said the move came “out of the blue” and that his organization, with members who would be major sources of the tolls, were not consulted. “We’re the largest stakeholder,” Butzer said. “They never even talked to us.”

According to Alexis Campell, a spokeswoman for PennDOT, the initial plan is looking at between five and 10 bridges that would be tolled. “The primary goal will be to address large and costly bridges, while ensuring the initiative is geographically balanced across the commonwealth and does not only benefit one region or corridor,” she said in an email to FreightWaves.

The first list of bridges to be tolled, or the first package of bridges, will be released in the first quarter of next year, according to Campbell. They will then require the normal process of environmental review and public outreach. 

Campbell also said the decision by the P3 board gave PennDOT the “authority to consider implementing user fees at certain major bridges but it’s not a foregone conclusion.”

Bridges on the Pennsylvania Turnpike will not be part of the program, Campbell added. She also said that there are toll bridges now between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but they are collected by other authorities such as the Delaware River Port Authority rather than PennDOT.

The tolling would be electronic. 

Pennsylvania implemented an almost $900 million 3PL project several years ago to fix almost 560 smaller bridges throughout the state. The maintenance of those bridges is to be carried out for roughly 25 years by one of the private companies in the partnership. Within the 3PL community, it was considered one of the more creative approaches to using 3PL funding as a means to infrastructure maintenance. 

The process to choose what bridges would be part of those in the program will look at what Campbell called “structures of significance.” Determining what bridges meet that criteria will be based on “size, location and cost to replace or rehabilitate with structural conditions that warrant timely attention.” Disruption in the community from performing the needed work will also be considered, she said. 

As for Butzer and the PMTA, he was critical of how the state had come to this point. Pennsylvania, Butzer said, has the highest fuel taxes in the country and the highest licensing fees for a truck in the U.S., “and now they’re saying they don’t have enough money. What is going on here?” He criticized what he said was diversion of funds to things like bike paths and intermodal projects. 

“Our fuel taxes being the highest in the nation, we should be done,” Butzer said.

In the call for comments on the Major Bridge 3PL project, PennDOT in some ways conceded Butzer’s point: It does have a funding crisis.

“The department faces an $8.1 billion gap in its annual highway and bridge transportation funding to keep the network in a state of good repair,” the agency said in the call for comments. “Federal funding has remained essentially flat for several years despite rising inflation. Gas taxes, which comprise 74% of PennDOT’s funding, have become increasingly unreliable.”

More articles by John Kingston

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Rhode Island truck-only tolls staying in effect for now

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    1. The most irritating part of this is the fact that environmentalists are pushing EVs… Who do not pay the fuel tax. So we tax the goose to make up the difference. However, a much more equitable solution would be a mileage tax. Every Vehicle can have a GPS tracker… The technology is there… It is used by major insurance companies.

      1. I would agree with per-mile tax being fairer but only IF it supplants fuel tax, not in addition to it. The problem with gov’t is tax revenue is their cocaine and once they start taxing something not only do they never want to give it up, they continually want even more. This is the story in Pennsylvania…. Highest fuel taxes, highest toll roads, and yet they say it’s not enough. So many states see trucks as a piggy bank they can keep shaking for revenue but eventually carriers have to say enough is enough and just stop serving these regions. If truckers boycotted a PA or RI for about a week those taxmongers would literally be starving! They need trucks far more than trucks need them.

John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.