The future is going to have toll roads. Lots of toll roads. Maybe all roads will become toll roads.
But PennDOT’s plan to charge drivers who use the I-79 bridge in South Fayette is ill-timed and stunningly tone-deaf, according to local leaders who spoke at a press conference Friday afternoon.
State Representative Jason Ortitay and State Senator Devlin Robinson, who both represent Bridgeville, railed against the plan.
“It’s a reckless proposal that does not take into account the reality of the situation in this area,” Ortitay said.
Starting in 2023, PennDOT wants to start collecting a toll from drivers who use I-79 in either direction in South Fayette.
According to state officials, the toll revenue is needed to replace the 60-year-old bridge that crosses Route 50 and to build an additional lane on each side I-79 to accomodate more vehicles.
Those projects are expected to cost approximately $150 million.
The tolls from this one bridge could generate more $1 billion in revenue over 30 years, based on PennDOT’s daily traffic figures for the interchange.
The tolls would go into effect as soon as the project breaks ground. In other words, drivers would initially pay a toll for the privilege of slowing down in a construction zone.
PennDOT officials said the the toll would initially be $1 or $2.
For a commuter, a $2 toll each way for five days a week adds up to $1,040 per year. For somebody earning $35,000 a year, that’s basically a second state income tax.
The toll bridge would have a yet-to-be-determined impact on nearby traffic and businesses.
Will drivers try to avoid the area entirely?
Or will motorists bypass the toll station by exiting I-79 at Kirwin Heights, then driving through Bridgeville instead?
Would a boost in vehicle traffic help local businesses? Or would increased congestion discourage potential customers from venturing anywhere near Bridgeville?
There are eight other toll bridges planned throughout Pennsylvania, the Bridgeville/South Fayette location is the only one planned for Allegheny County
“I would love to know the criteria for why they came up with this bridge in this specific part of the state,” Ortitay said.
Once upon a time, funding road improvements was easy—just tax gasoline. It was a simple and somewhat fair system—the more you drive, the more you pay. But those days are gone.
Advancements in fuel economy, along with the advent of electric vehicles, are pushing the gas tax toward obsolescence. Today’s cars can travel further on less gasoline than ever before, and fuel efficiency gets better every year.
At the same time, gas taxes have become a political third rail. The federal tax hasn’t been raised since 1993. To put that in perspective, that’s the year that “Whoomp There It Is” topped the Billboard Hot 100.
Back then, the most popular cars were lucky to get 25 miles per gallon going downhill with a strong wind behind them. Today, they make Dodge Rams that can get 32 miles-per-gallon.
Under the current system, a Prius owner who drives 100,000 miles per year pays less toward road upkeep than a Chevy Equinox owner who uses the roads half as much. Meanwhile, a Tesla owner could drive 500,000 miles and contribute $0 in fuel taxes.
At some point, government officials will have to stop relying on the gas tax and begin charging people based on miles traveled. In other words, a toll.
PennDOT is currently facing a massive budget shortfall, which got worse when people stopped driving the during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ortitay acknowledged that the state of transportation tech presented challenges to the current funding system. He called for state leaders to address the issue head-on, rather than build a seemingly-random patchwork of toll stations around the commonwealth.
“We need to have a conversation about that,” he said, “and everything should be on the table.”