By State Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion/Armstrong/Forest)
Having Interstate 80 in our area is one of our greatest assets. This critical interstate attracts business and industry, not to mention thousands of travelers visiting our wonderful communities. Our proximity to I-80 is listed on traveler brochures, college admissions materials and economic development proposals. I-80 is our lifeline.
Under a plan by PennDOT to toll two local I-80 bridges, that asset may turn into a detriment. Proposed tolls will encourage local and out-of-town drivers to divert onto Routes 322, 338 and 208 and potential business, industry and visitors will disappear altogether.
Since the plan to toll bridges over Canoe Creek in Clarion County and North Fork Creek in Jefferson County were announced over a year ago, PennDOT has tried to connect with the people impacted most and to make their case why these bridges were selected. Most recently, the agency has touted its robust and “transparent” public engagement strategy to show that its officials have listened – but way too late to be a part of the overall process.
PennDOT says it has listened and is adjusting the final tolling proposals. I wholeheartedly disagree. If PennDOT officials had truly listened and paid attention to history, they would be scrapping their plan to toll both these bridges and looking for other alternatives. People said no to tolls on I-80 once before and they’re saying no again.
There is no doubt that our highway and bridge infrastructure needs repairs. We live in the Keystone State after all, with a tremendous freeze-and-thaw cycle compounded by heavy interstate traffic. And that’s why Pennsylvania should be receiving a good-sized share of the federal Build Back Better funds.
But the news of that federal investment has not swayed PennDOT from continuing its tolling plan. In fact, my colleagues and I – both in the legislature and in the community – are still perplexed at how and why the nine bridges were selected. During the November 2019 meeting to approve the Pathways public-private partnership (P3) program, none of the bridges were even named, let alone a review of any type of preliminary impact studies.
Impact studies would have shown the immense vehicle diversion into local communities, creating more traffic congestion, roadway deterioration, increased response times for fire and ambulance services, along with the additional costs on families, seniors, nonprofit organizations, schools, and business and industry.
With inflation and the cost of goods and services already reaching record levels, no one can afford pay additional tolls, especially when those fees are passed onto the consumer.
The original P3 law was never designed to implement tolling on existing infrastructure, and it certainly was never intended to prevent the public from having a voice in a genuine and transparent process of additional fees and tolls. P3 projects are supposed to be partnerships, not forced fees from one government agency.
Logistics for tolling, such as gantry installation, oversized loads, and inability to capture 100% of the revenue, have yet to be worked out. This all adds up to a plan that isn’t ready for execution.
Ultimately, I still am at a loss why these two bridges were selected, especially when PennDOT claims all nine are geographically balanced. Perhaps they neglected to consider that we may be small in number, but our voices are loud. And together, we will be making a lot of noise. Please add your voice to those against I-80 bridge tolling by visiting my website at RepOberlander.com
Representative Donna Oberlander
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Jennifer Algoe Keaton