By Teresa Boeckel | York Daily Record
On a recent weekend, drivers stopped at a Pennsylvania Welcome Center, just north of the Maryland line, to take a break on their trips.
Cars and trucks whizzed by on Interstate 83. Peter and Jackie Speaks, who were on their way home to Harrisburg, said they recognize the challenge the state is facing with its deteriorating roads and bridges.
They’ve heard about plans for tolls to pay for work needed, but they don’t know if that’s the answer.
Jackie Speaks motioned to nearby tractor-trailers parked at the rest stop and mentioned how much harder new tolls would be for the industry.
President Joe Biden has proposed $621 billion for transportation in his federal infrastructure bill. It includes about $115 billion for road and bridge repairs nationally.
“Hopefully the (federal) infrastructure bill will be passed,” Peter Speaks said.
But even that’s not enough for the state’s needs.
Pennsylvania faces an $8.1 billion annual shortfall for interstates and bridges, and overall, the state has $9.3 billion in unmet needs across its state-maintained system, which includes highways, bridges, aviation, railroads, transit and ports. Without a significant increase in federal investment, PennDOT says, it has been forced to take money away from regional projects to help the interstate network.
The agency doesn’t know yet the details on how the infrastructure money would be distributed to Pennsylvania, but “any additional federal funds could help our limited state dollars go farther,” PennDOT said in a statement. It would help projects that already are in the works in the coming years.
Peter Speaks said it’s going to take funding from both the federal and state governments to meet the needs. He and Jackie Speaks think that increasing fees, such as for license and registration renewals, might be part of the answer.
Here’s a look at the different ways the state is looking at raising revenue to fund transportation:
Tolling bridges is one of the short-term solutions, which has already been shared with the public.
PennDOT has identified nine bridges around the state — eight that need to be replaced and one that requires rehabilitation — that could be candidates for tolling to help pay for the work.
The department would enter into a private-public partnership with a developer, which would arrange for private financing to design, construct, operate and maintain the structures, said Ken McClain, PennDOT’s alternative funding director.
PennDOT would collect tolls on each of the bridges to pay back the investment over a 30- to 35-year period.
It’s similar to a mortgage on a house, McClain said. The buyer borrows money and pays it back over time.
For commuters with E-ZPass, it would likely cost $1 or $2 in each direction to cross the bridges. A truck driver would likely pay between $4 and $6.
The plan, however, has drawn criticism from commuters, the trucking industry and legislators, saying it would hurt drivers and businesses.
The state Senate recently approved a bill that would stop PennDOT’s plan to toll bridges. It was introduced by Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria County.
“The answer for transportation funding cannot just be to raise taxes or fees on the back of hardworking commonwealth residents,” he said.
The Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association is opposed to the plan, said Rebecca Oyler, president and CEO. If a truck crosses a bridge twice a day, the cost adds up over a year.
“It sets a trucking company back,” she said.
The state already is the third-most expensive for trucks to operate in, and more tolls would affect the regional economy. It might be more advantageous for a company to relocate to another state.
Transportation solutions need to be fair and equitable — not burdensome to the trucking industry, she said.
Oyler said during a recent meeting that she doesn’t have a problem with giving travelers a choice whether to pay a toll to use an express lane.
“To tax or toll an interstate that’s currently free, that’s currently a public good that I think we all pay taxes for currently, I don’t think that that is fair, especially to those industries like ours that are traveling those roads and bridges that are really going to disproportionately impact them,” she said.
Howard Cohen, an instructor at Temple University, responded that he thinks it should be discussed whether interstates are a public good. He’s not sure that it’s good economics or public policy to consider them one.
Develop ‘hot lanes’ on highways
If you’ve traveled to Washington D.C., you might have seen the “hot lanes” — express lanes that allow drivers to get to their destination quicker.
PennDOT is looking at this idea for highways clogged with traffic, such as the Schuylkill Expressway, I-81 or I-83.
A traditional four-lane highway — two lanes in each direction — could be widened to six.
Drivers would pay a toll to use the new, fast lanes. It could be free for commuters who carpool.
Tolling new infrastructure on existing highways would not impact the travelers, as they could still opt to use the free lanes, Oyler said.
PennDOT sees this as a mid- to long-term solution.
Tolling rush hour on highways
Many commuters sit in traffic on congested highways during the morning and afternoon rush.
Tolling highways during those high-traffic times looks to influence driver behavior, McClain said.
Perhaps drivers will take an alternative route or travel during off-peak hours to avoid the tolls.
It would help ease congestion on the highways that need it.
Enacting a road user charge
One of the long-term options is to charge drivers a fee based on every mile they travel.
“We feel that the user charge is the only one that can significantly compete with the gas tax in the amount of revenue that it could generate,” McClain said.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has referenced this option several times during speaking engagements, and it marks the first time that the Federal Highway Administration has endorsed it. The federal government might even want to migrate to a mileage-based user fee by the end of the decade.
Some states, such as Utah and Oregon, already are piloting road-user charges. Pennsylvania is closely watching that to see how they handle tracking the mileage and invoicing the fees as well as any successes or failures, McClain said.
How it might work in Pennsylvania remains to be seen.
One way could be through the annual vehicle inspection.
Employees at the service station would write down the mileage on the vehicle and send it to PennDOT, which would generate an invoice and send it to the owner, McClain said.
Or a GPS on the vehicle could track the miles traveled.
Many drivers don’t want Big Brother knowing where they are traveling, but the GPS could make the fees more equitable, McClain said. That’s because it’s unclear whether the Commonwealth could charge drivers for the mileage driven out of state.
Or perhaps Pennsylvania could enter into reciprocity agreements on the fees with neighboring states.
If the federal government provided some overarching principals and guidelines for the states, it would help.
Support for mileage-based fees has grown over the years, according to the Mineta Transportation Institute.
In its most recent survey, more than half of Americans supported a “green” mileage fee, according to a news release. The average fee would be 3 cents per mile. Drivers would pay more or less, depending on how much pollution their vehicle produces.
Increasing taxes and fees
Another mid- to long-term solution could be increasing taxes and fees.
That’s a task that the Transportation Revenue Options Commission is exploring.
These could include mileage-based user fees, vehicle registration fee increases, tolling of roads and bridges, and an excise tax on goods that are delivered.
What drivers think
In the Pittsburgh area, traffic that crosses the I-79 bridges could be tolled to pay for their replacement, widening of the road and reconfiguring the Bridgeville interchange.
The project is expected to cost $100 million to $150 million, according to PennDOT.
Some say tolls aren’t the answer for working-class commuters, truck drivers and local businesses, and they hope it doesn’t come to fruition.
“It’s just going to hurt everybody,” said Chris Sybo, operations manager for Trio Trucking in Sharpsburg borough, Allegheny County.
About 87,000 vehicles daily travel on I-79, and about 12 percent is truck traffic, according to PennDOT.
Some trucks cross the bridges multiple times a day, Sybo said.
Some drivers will avoid the bridges if they’re tolled, causing more congestion on the back roads, said Kevin Super, owner of Super Duper Carpet & Duct Cleaning.
The public already is overtaxed, he added.
Sybo said he thinks PennDOT needs to tighten its belt.
PennDOT has been streamlined over the years, McClain said. It now employs about 11,500 — a nearly 50 percent reduction in staff from 30 years ago — and uses innovations to implement projects. The agency continues to improve operations to be as efficient as possible, but it’s not going to be enough to cover the shortfall.
Sybo said he knows an easy answer doesn’t exist, or it would have been done. A neighbor of his bought a Tesla. Drivers of electric vehicles aren’t paying their fair share toward the maintenance of the bridges and highways, he said.
“Let’s hope and pray they can come up with a better method,” he said.
Cinthia Carlos recently stopped at the Pennsylvania Welcome Center along I-83 on her way back to York from Virginia Beach. Carlos said she has no idea how to fix the problem. Good and bad exists in potential solutions.
While electric cars will help to save the planet, the shift away from gasoline will mean a loss of jobs, she believes.
With a mileage-based fee, she worries that some people will not travel as much, and it will have an impact on tourism.
“They’re going to force people to stay home,” she said.