EDITORIAL: Using Pa. bridge tolls to pay for upgrades is best option among bad choices

  • There are numerous Pennsylvania bridges in need of upgrades.
  • PennDOT is considering tolling nine bridges on six interstates.
  • Those tolls will be used for construction, maintenance and operation.
PennDOT is considering tolling some bridges in Pennsylvania.

It’s a situation where there are no good options.

Some of the most heavily-traveled bridges in Pennsylvania are in desperate need of upgrades.

Doing nothing, or kicking the can down the road a few years, all too often is the default position of our politicians when hard decisions like this need to be made.

That’s easy to understand, because this is a decision that will cost billions of taxpayer dollars for projects that will take years to complete and also cause traffic congestion of nightmarish proportions.

That is not something that will typically win you admirers — or even more importantly, votes.

Still, doing nothing, or kicking the can down the road, opens the door to possibly tragic consequences — collapses that could cost dozens of lives, maybe more.

PennDOT eyes tolls to fund work on nine interstate bridges

That, obviously, can’t be allowed to happen.

So, something must be done — soon.

PennDOT proposal: That’s why Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation recently named nine bridges on six interstates that need upgrades. PennDOT also said it will consider tolling those bridges to help generate the cash. One of those bridges would be in this region — I-83's South Bridge across the Susquehanna River, a mile from the state Capitol.

The bridges were selected because they are relatively large, costly projects that require improvements sooner, PennDOT said. The agency tried to give geographical balance to the bridges it selected to distribute the impact, it said.

Tolling would be electronic and collected through E-ZPass or license-plate billing, PennDOT said. The money collected on a bridge would go to its construction, maintenance and operation.

Paying the bill will be unpopular: No matter how the tolls are collected, however, the tolling of bridges is sure to be wildly unpopular.

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Of course, the other most-likley option to pay for the bridge upgrades — raising the state gas taxes — might be even more unpopular, especially since Pennsylvania already has some of the highest gas taxes in the nation.

The tolling concept was approved in November by the Public Private Transportation Partnership board, the first time it had approved a plan involving user fees since it was created by a 2012 law, and requires no legislative approval.

Raising hackles: Not surprisingly, that has raised the hackles of some of our legislators, who obviously don’t want to hear the loud complaints from their constituents if tolling takes place.

Several Republican senators are sponsoring a resolution to stop such a move, saying it would hurt the economy. They also don’t like the idea that PennDOT could essentially tax and appropriate funds without General Assembly oversight.

Also, not surprisingly, trucking industry associations oppose it.

Matter of fairness: Tolling the bridges, however, seems like a fairer solution than raising our already sky-high gas taxes. The folks who get the most benefit from using the bridges would also be the ones who would bear the highest cost of the bridge upkeep.

That’s how user fees work.

If you are among the majority of Pennsylvania residents who would use the bridges little, if at all, tolling sounds like a good idea.

If you are a trucker or a commuter who uses the bridges on a constant basis, tolling sounds like a brutally unfair financial burden.

There are no good options, but tolling the bridges sounds like the best option among bad choices.