Pennsylvania Court Temporarily Halts Bridge Tolling Plan

I-83 Bridge Pennsylvania
I-83 Bridge Project by Pennsylvania Department of Transportation

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In a sweeping censure, a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judge granted a request from eight municipalities and issued an injunction preventing state transportation officials from proceeding with plans to impose bridge tolls.

Judge Ellen Ceisler granted the preliminary injunction May 18 against PennDOT, the Public-Private Transportation Partnership (P3) Board and Yassmin Gramian as PennDOT secretary and P3 board chair. The court decision blocked any further action to impose tolls on nine bridges in the state.

Under the order, PennDOT/P3 bridge initiative is prohibited from:

  • Further executing or performing work under a predevelopment agreement or other contracts.
  • Conducting studies, hearings or meetings.
  • Developing designs.
  • Acquiring rights of way.
  • Tolling.
  • Construction.
  • Spending any funds.

In a 46-page decision, Ceisler sided with Cumberland County; the townships of East Pennsboro, Lower Allen and West Hanover; and the boroughs of Camp Hill, Wormleysburg, Lemoyne and New Cumberland in their legal action (Petition for Review) challenging the state’s Major Bridge P3 Initiative to use public-private partnerships to repair/rebuild major bridges there, including the Interstate 83 John Harris Memorial Bridge.

The municipalities are located around the I-83 bridge, one of nine bridges designated by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for refurbishment to be funded by tolls. They argued that PennDOT and P3 officials lacked authority to approve the Bridge P3 Initiative since it wasn’t a transportation project because no bridges were specified.

“The board is not authorized to approve a generic statewide ‘initiative’ or concept as it has done,” the judge concluded. She found it acted in violation of Act 88 of 2012 authorizing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and other public entities to create public-private partnerships to deliver, maintain and finance transportation-related projects.

She deemed this lack of bridge identification leading to two other Act 88 violations: failing to consult with people impacted by the P3 bridge project “since it essentially affected all persons statewide” and being unable to determine if the initiative was in the best interests of the state since officials didn’t understand its scope or content of the project when approving the P3.

In addition “to these serious questions of law,” Ceisler wrote that the facts of the case “greatly heighten” the court’s concerns.

“The board essentially approved a massive multibillion-dollar infrastructure initiative on an admittedly meager record, consisting of a four-page recommendation from DOT, a presentation, and minimal discussion, and without understanding which, or how many, pieces of public infrastructure the initiative would affect,” she declared.

When asked by Transport Topics for comment about the ruling, Alexis Campbell, PennDOT press secretary, stated: “We are reviewing the opinion.”

Rebecca Oyler, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, supported the judge’s decision in a May 18 statement.

“From the day the initiative was announced in November 2020, PMTA has pointed out that the agency failed to follow basic steps not only required by law, but also expected of any government action — communicate before acting,” Oyler noted. “Had they communicated with the Pennsylvania trucking industry, they would have heard that the consequences of tolling would be catastrophic. With diesel prices already at record levels, now is the worst possible time to add $5,000-plus per truck per year for trucking companies and other small businesses. These are costs that are ultimately passed on to consumers.”

She said that although PMTA is “pleased to know that no additional motor license funds, 40% of which come from trucks, will be spent on this clear agency overreach, we wonder how many bridges could have been built with the money PennDOT has already spent on the Major Bridge P3 Initiative.”

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PMTA filed an amicus brief in a similar pending lawsuit challenging another bridge tolling project on Interstate 79 in which a hearing was held May 18 in Pittsburgh. Oyler said she hopes the court will order a permanent injunction and the same arguments apply to both cases.

Rep. Jason Ortitay (R) also backs the fight against the I-79 bridge tolling. He noted in a statement, “This injunction is especially important because PennDOT said during a hearing on the Cumberland County case last month that it planned to execute a contract with the foreign company that it chose for the work. This contract would pay the company millions of dollars even if the project was canceled due to a court ruling. PennDOT has shown that it will steamroll the process and recklessly spend taxpayer dollars for no reason.”

Ortitay, whose district includes communities around the I-79 bridge, urged PennDOT “not waste more taxpayer dollars by appealing this decision” but “to admit they were wrong and come to the table to dialogue, not rule as a dictator.”