The state’s plan to toll nine major bridges – including one on Interstate 81 in Great Bend Township – was permanently blocked by a Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruling written by Judge Ellen Ceisler and issued Thursday, June 30, that held the law had not been correctly followed in getting the plan approved.
South Fayette and Collier townships, along with Bridgeville Borough, brought the suit against the Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation.
Senator Lisa Baker, who opposed the plan, hailed the decision as a major victory for Pennsylvanians who have expressed serious concerns with the impact that the bridge tolls would have on local communities. The tolling plan had included a nine-mile stretch along Interstate 81 in Susquehanna County, and the Nescopeck Creek bridges on Interstate 80 in Luzerne County.
“Today’s decision is a win for motorists and communities across our region,” Senator Lisa Baker said. “Without question, rising gasoline prices and inflation are serious concerns for every household as they claim a bigger piece of the family budget. I would like to thank the many area residents and business owners who took the time over the last year to express their concerns about the additional costs the plan would impose, as well as the traffic delays and difficulties that would arise from people choosing to divert to a local road network to avoid tolls.”
The Major Bridge P3 Initiative was a statewide plan to use public-private partnerships to repair or replace nine identified bridges in deteriorating condition, and use tolls collected to fund the projects and for maintenance.
The proposed-tolling plan received unanimous approval from the state’s Public-Private Partnership Board in late 2020 and announced the nine bridges under consideration in February 2021. Act 88 of 2012 established the board’s duties.
According to court documents, the board failed to comply with the statutory requirements of Act 88 which includes prior consultation with affected municipalities and stakeholders.
The municipalities that brought the suit maintained the board did not contact them before approving the resolution or at any time prior to the identification of the bridges.
In Section C of the Commonwealth Court decision, the document reads: “The I-79 Bridge Project would significantly impact Petitioners, as traffic would shift to local roads in an attempt to avoid tolls on the I-79 Bridge. Petitioners allege that local roads are inadequate to accept this anticipated additional traffic.”
Susquehanna County residents and elected officials raised similar concerns late last year at an PennDOT open house on the I-81 bridge tolling project.
“It’s bad public policy as far as I am concerned,” said State Baker at the time. “The governor failed to take into account public input before proposing a toll on nine bridges.”
At the open house, New Milford Twp. Supervisors Jack Conroy and Scott Ferenczi said traffic diversion from the interstate to Route 11 would be a “disaster.” Conroy said that when there is a vehicle wreck on I-81 that diverts traffic onto Route 11, the township has been unable to get out with their snow plows.
“It’s not good now and it’s only going to get worse,” Ferenczi said of the proposed project.
According to the court’s decision: The Board essentially approved a multibillion-dollar transportation project based on what was essentially a four-page powerpoint recommendation from DOT that failed to delineate which, or how many, pieces of public infrastructure the Initiative would affect. Given these concerns, we strongly question the constitutional viability of Act 88.”