Toll plan angers officials

Elected officials at all levels of government have expressed their opposition to the state’s plan to place tolls on select Interstate 80 bridges.

The spans include the Canoe Creek bridges in Beaver Township, Clarion County, and the North Fork bridges in Brookville and Pine Township, Jefferson County.

Clarion County Commissioner Ted Tharan said he isn’t in favor “of any toll on any road in Pennsylvania” because the state has “the highest gas tax of any state in the nation, so why should we pay tolls on roads that are supposed to be free?”

He said Harrisburg fails to take possible ramifications into account before decisions are executed.

“Every time the state does something they don’t think it through,” Tharan said. “They don’t think of traffic jams” or the cost of maintenance.

“Maybe they are thinking of electric cars. When more electric cars are in use, the state won’t collect as much in gasoline taxes because fewer people will be buying gas.”

Jefferson County Commissioner Jeff Pisarcik said the state tried to implement tolls several years ago, but the proposal was voted down.

“I am really concerned how it would affect the economy,” he said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, in announcing the proposal last week, said its Pathways Major Bridge Public-Private Partnership Initiative can provide a dedicated source of revenue for infrastructure improvements and could create significant savings over the life of the program.

PennDOT said it tried give geographical balance to the bridges it selected to distribute the impact. A public involvement process is scheduled to begin in spring.

Last week, state Sen. Scott Hutchinson issued a news release in which he called PennDOT’s proposal “a back-handed attempt” to toll Interstate 80.

Pisarcik, though, acknowledged there is a need to replace the I-80 bridges in Brookville and Pine Township.

“The I-80 bridges get about 30,000 vehicles a day. That is a lot of traffic,” he said. “They do need straightened out. There have been twice as many accidents on those bridges compared to other bridges.”

However, he said, “You need to find the money someplace; it is kind of a juggling act. I believe Gov. Rendell put a gas tax on a few years ago that was designed to cover the cost of the state’s bridge-replacement program. It hasn’t come off.”

He said it’s not the first time the idea of tolling has been put forward.

“Every couple of years this comes up. Hopefully, it will get voted down like it did last time,” Pisarcik said.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, while touring portions of Clarion County last week, said implementing a toll on I-80 “is just a bad idea” and he vows “to do my best to keep it from happening” because federal legislators “put significant dollars into repairing these bridges in the last transportation bill.”

In addition, he said, tolls on the I-80 bridges will create traffic problems.

“We see that on the turnpike. It pushed traffic off the turnpike because it is so expensive. That’s how it starts,” Thompson said. “The turnpike was supposed to stop being tolled when it was paid for. We have seen what has happened to the cost of tolling. It is expensive.”

In addition, he said, there are other repercussions caused by tolling the bridges.

“I think it is a tax on local folks who have to use it to go to work,” Thompson said. “Local people use the bridges to commute to work and to shop.

“It also reduces our competitiveness.

“Who is going to want to come in and build a new business and have to pay this additional tax in anything they ship out? The local folks are working real hard to make the area competitive, and I think this is really short-sighted.”

The issue of tolling, Thompson said, could be played out in Congress.

“These highways are federal property, so the state has to get permission from the federal government. We were successful in blocking this under the Obama administration.”

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)