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Camp Hill considers legal action on I-83 bridge toll as local officials discuss response

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I-83 South bridge

PennDOT has announced its intention to introduce tolls on nine major bridges in the state, including the Interstate 83 John Harris Memorial bridge, commonly known as the South Bridge, which crosses the Susquehanna River to connect the suburbs of southeastern Cumberland County to the Harrisburg area.

Local officials hope to present a united front against the state’s proposal to toll the Interstate 83 bridge over the Susquehanna, with Camp Hill borough council authorizing their solicitor to look into legal action that could involve other municipalities.

Camp Hill hosted a town hall event prior to Wednesday’s borough council meeting to review the issue, with county officials and state legislators attending.

“I don’t think they considered what it would do to Camp Hill borough,” said Rep. Greg Rothman, a sentiment that was widely shared among those in attendance.

Exactly how PennDOT believes the tolling would shake out for the surrounding communities, and why, is still a bit of a mystery, according to the borough. PennDOT has a traffic study but has not yet released it, Camp Hill borough engineer Mike Hess said. Questions as to what baselines and assumptions the study is working with are as yet unanswered.

“If we don’t agree with any of those aspects, we want to push back,” Hess said.

PennDOT officials were invited to attend Wednesday but declined, Camp Hill council president Alissa Packer said.

Tolling the I-83 bridge that connects the lower West Shore to the south end of Harrisburg, commonly called the South Bridge, is intended to help pay for construction of a new bridge.

The current bridge is approaching the end of its lifespan, according to PennDOT. The replacement bridge would be widened to five lanes each direction, with a total cost of $500 million to $650 million, according to PennDOT’s current plans.

Local opposition to the tolling is grounded in traffic diversion. Although the west end of the bridge runs along the southern edge of Lemoyne and the northern edge of New Cumberland, Camp Hill will likely be the most impacted by vehicles seeking other routes to avoid the toll. If tolling is put in place, a portion of motorists would be expected to re-route to the bypass through Camp Hill and onto the Harvey Taylor Bridge.

The I-83 bridge handles an average of 125,000 vehicles per day. Camp Hill officials have cited an estimate that roughly 20% of cars could be expected to avoid the bridge due to tolling, assuming PennDOT’s typical tolls in the $1 to $2 range.

If all of these vehicles went to the Harvey Taylor Bridge, which averages under 25,000 vehicles per day, this would double the amount of traffic through Camp Hill.

PennDOT would be required to mitigate the impact, Hess said. This would likely involve changing signal timing and/or adding turn lanes; borough council members expressed concern over such an impact given that Camp Hill has dedicated pedestrian crossing timing at many of its lights, intended ensure the safety of students who travel to school on foot.

Nearly every municipality in eastern Cumberland County, along with the county commissioners, have issued resolutions opposing the tolling. County commissioners Jean Foschi and Vince DiFilippo, who also attended Wednesday, said the proposal seemed to be one of the worst possible ways to finance infrastructure.

Tolls are effectively a regressive tax, Foschi said, because the toll is not indexed to a person’s income or ability to pay. County Planning Director Kirk Stoner said current figures are that 69% of the South Bridge’s traffic originates within 10 miles of the bridge, indicating that most of the users are local.

This is somewhat unique compared to other bridges that PennDOT is proposing to toll, Stoner said. Those bridges have much higher rates of through-traffic and freight that are less likely to divert.

“The question I keep asking is ‘why would you want to toll a bridge where most of the traffic is local traffic?’” DiFilippo said, because local diversions will create “a spider web of problems.”

Over the summer, PennDOT’s Transportation Revenue Options Commission released a report that included dozens of possible funding mechanisms as part of a broader overhaul of how the state funds transportation; but this report does not seem to have impacted the pursuit of tolling to finance bridge replacement.

Several officials on Wednesday questioned why PennDOT has not moved to revise its proposals in light of the federal infrastructure bill signed into law by President Joe Biden in November. PennDOT is anticipated to receive about $4 billion through the federal infrastructure plan.

While there is interest in Harrisburg in pursuing other funding options, there does not seem to be a consensus yet.

“The push needs to be getting the will and the votes there to do them,” Rep. Sheryl Delozier said.

In the meantime, some municipalities have turned to the courts to stop or delay the implementation of tolls, something that Camp Hill may also be doing, after the borough council voted Wednesday to authorize the borough solicitor to pursue legal options as well as the interest of other municipalities in joining Camp Hill in such an effort.

This is happening in the western part of the state, where several municipalities in Allegheny County are jointly suing PennDOT over plans to toll I-79, according to reports from KDKA, the Observer-Report and other news outlets in the area.

That suit alleges that PennDOT and the state’s Public Private Transportation Partnership, or P3, board violated requirements to engage with local stakeholders on impact studies and analyses that, according to the claims in the suit, were not actually done prior to PennDOT soliciting P3 proposals.

The tolling program is the result of a November 2020 decision by the P3 board to authorize PennDOT to look into public-private partnership mechanisms to pay for bridge repair and replacement.

The P3 board has statutory power from the Legislature to enact such programs. In this case, the P3 deals would involve paying for bridge work by having a private entity essentially purchase a stake in a bridge’s future tolling revenue.

In February 2021, PennDOT came back with a list of nine bridges for which P3 proposals would be solicited.

The timing of these actions is problematic, Delozier said. By law, the Legislature has a certain number of days to pass a resolution against a P3 board decision, but the board’s action was taken when the Legislature did not have sufficient session days left to actually move a vote against the proposal, Delozier said.

Even if it had, PennDOT did not issue a list of bridges until later on, which Delozier described as an attempt at ”skirting” the language of the P3 law by not giving the Legislature enough information to actually make a decision until it was too late.

The Legislature has a bill, Senate Bill 382, that would add additional oversight to the P3 system and would potentially force the P3 board and PennDOT to re-do their proposal. The bill has passed the state Senate and House, and is awaiting additional Senate committee action before it goes to Gov. Tom Wolf.

The question beyond the impact of I-83 tolling is how to pay for Pennsylvania’s dilapidated infrastructure. Stoner said there is little question that major items such as the South Bridge urgently need replacement.

PennDOT’s revenue report from the summer includes a number of broader-based fees on vehicles and auto sales that would shoulder much of the weight. One of these has been championed by Rothman — a bill that would place a user fee on electric vehicles, given that these vehicles also place demand on transit infrastructure but do not pay gas tax. Negotiations on the proposal are ongoing, Rothman said.

Pennsylvania’s reliance on a comparatively high gas tax is a fundamental part of the problem, according to the report. It is a volatile funding stream that is also used to fund the Pennsylvania State Police.

Funding the state police through other means would devote more gas tax dollars to infrastructure, and is something still under consideration, Rothman said. Wolf’s preference has been his proposal to charge a fee on municipalities that do not have their own local police forces and rely on the state police, although this proposal has yet to make it through a budget negotiation.

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