Bridge Tolling – Let’s Find a Solution

(as printed in The Clarion News, November 15th, 2022 edition)

The economic implications of tolls on key Interstate highway bridges in our region were the source of considerable strain and uneasiness within our business communities.

On Nov. 12, 2020, Pennsylvania’s Public-Private Transportation Partnership (P3) had approved a new transportation initiative to accelerate the reconstruction and rehabilitation of major bridges in partnership with the private sector.

Through the consideration of tolls, the Major Bridge P3 Initiative (MBP3) would have allowed for the delivery of projects through the P3 Program.

In February 2021, nine bridges were selected for tolling through the MBP3. Of the nine bridges, two were in Northwestern Pennsylvania: I-80 Canoe Creek Bridges in Clarion County, and I-80 North Fork Bridges in Jefferson County.

The I-80 corridor remains an economic lifeline for Clarion County and our neighbors. Proximity to the Interstate is key for businesses choosing to locate and/or expand in our region, so any hint of tolling along these roads and bridges is an immediate cause of concern.

Opposition to this tolling proposal was generally universal. It was clear that the organization of opposition was critical if any voices were to effectively speak out against the MBP3 Initiative.

In March 2022, concerned community members from across Pennsylvania created the No P3 Bridge Tolls Coalition. The No P3 Coalition is a group of concerned local chambers, economic development entities, statewide business organizations, business leaders, affected community leaders, and citizens.

It stood opposed to the tolling of the nine bridges because of the effect it would have had on our local and statewide economy. Within our region, this coalition was spearheaded by the Clarion Area Chamber of Business and Industry, Clarion County Economic Development Corporation, Venango Area Chamber, and Jefferson County Development Council.

By the way of press releases, press conferences, rebuttal letters, social media/marketing campaigns, community surveys, and a rally on the steps of the Capital Complex in Harrisburg, the No P3 Bridge Tolls Coalition advocated for the halt of the Major Bridge P3 Initiative.

This grassroots campaign effectively raised the voices of Pennsylvanians across the Commonwealth and made it clear Pennsylvania businesses and communities did not support this funding mechanism.

Our voices were not alone. On May 18, following a lawsuit issued out of Cumberland County, a Commonwealth Court issued a preliminary injunction to temporarily stop PennDOT from moving forward with the projects.

A short month later, that temporary injunction was made permanent, rendering the tolling plan dead.

With the threat of tolling behind us, remaining focused on the advocacy for sustainable funding solutions is the new target.

Our bridges still require funding for rehabilitation or replacement, and our coalition seeks to see that work is completed. The energy generated from the anti-toll campaign should shift toward a solution-finding endeavor.

Working with PennDOT, our state legislators, and community members will ultimately bring about the best solutions, and we intend to be proactive in the identification of those solutions.

The author is the executive director of the Clarion County Economic Development Corp. He can be reached at 814-226-9045.