PennDOT needs to find real alternative to tolling

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (TNS)

While the U.S. Supreme Court was making all the big news in recent weeks, the justices weren’t the only ones dropping significant decisions. On Thursday, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court decided to make some waves of its own.

It did so by putting its judicial foot down when it comes to bridges.

In a 36-page opinion, the court nixed a proposal to toll an Interstate 79 bridge in Allegheny County. It was the second time the court hit at the idea. In May, it granted a preliminary injunction against the $2 billion initiative that would change the way bridge projects could be funded statewide.

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The problem is that PennDOT and the Pathways Bridge Public-Private Partnership that would build or upgrade nine bridges and then charge to use them didn’t follow established requirements to approve them.

Typical PennDOT projects are a very prescribed process of proposals, announcements, advertising and hearings. Even something as simple as changing a stop sign to a stoplight can be surprisingly detailed and complex. The bridge tolling lacked that specificity, discarding the demands of Act 88 for input and assessment.

“The board essentially approved a multibillion-dollar transportation project based on what was essentially a four-page PowerPoint recommendation from (PennDOT) that failed to delineate which, or how many, pieces of public infrastructure the initiative would affect,” Judge Ellen Ceisler’s opinion read.

This is a Pittsburgh Transit Authority bus that was on the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh when it collapsed Friday morning Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

That is why the three local municipalities affected by the I-79 project — South Fayette, Collier and Bridgeville — claimed they weren’t given the opportunity for input required.

The court’s ruling makes sense — and yet, since Commonwealth Court is the lowest rung on the state court ladder, who knows where it will go from here. Where it’s unlikely to go is the state Legislature, which has expressed opposition to the expanded and unpopular tolling plan.

PennDOT needs to find a way to pay for bridge infrastructure that follows the rules lawmakers have laid out or the ones the state courts will adjudicate. Bridges aren’t optional, and neither is the law, but tolling seems to be going nowhere fast.

— From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (TNS).