CLARION — Witnesses and legislators at U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson’s public hearing on the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s new Major Bridge Public-Private Partnership (P3) Initiative Thursday explained the impact that is expected locally in Clarion and Jefferson counties, should the bridge tolling become a reality.
Two of the I-80 bridge projects that could be tolled as part of PennDOT’s P3 Initiative are the North Fork bridges in Jefferson County and the Canoe Creek bridges in Clarion County.
Tracy Becker, executive director of the Clarion Area Chamber of Commerce, spoke about the difficulty local businesses are already facing from repercussions of COVID-19 shutdowns throughout 2020.
“After what we went through in 2020 with COVID-19, our businesses were shut down for three months. Those that were allowed to be opened by the governor ran for 25 percent. And now you want the products that come in to replenish their stock to be tolled? This is extremely too much for our businesses, as well as our residents. Our businesses are just hanging on and waiting for restrictions to be lifted,” Becker said.
State Rep. Donna Oberlander, who represents Clarion County, focused on the diversion and congestion that is created when there is a toll. She asked Becker, as someone with an office in downtown Clarion, to explain the impact on the community when there is any blockage on I-80.
Becker said when there is an accident, it seems there are no other vehicles on the roads except for trucks. She said this discourages locals from driving into the community.
“They don’t want to fight with truck traffic, we’re not able to parallel park on Main Street. So our businesses are suffering, and then I hear people saying ‘don’t go to Clarion.’ Everyone’s on Facebook saying ‘don’t go to Clarion, don’t go down 322,’” Becker said.
State Sen. Cris Dush, who represents Jefferson County, said the tolling and increased truck traffic will drive business away, which is the opposite of what towns are trying to do.
“Those trucks are going to be going through Brookville. Plain and simple. There is no doubt about it, they will avoid that bridge, and I can’t blame them,” Dush said.
Greg Lander, vice president of Klapec Trucking Company located in Reno, Venango County, put potential tolling into the perspective for a local company. He said his company has heard that under the proposal, tolls will charge around $1 to $2 for every vehicle that passes through.
“This proposal, if this was to be implemented, Klapec Trucking, assuming our trucks use the same route that they use today, will spend more than $200,000 per year over just the four bridges on I-80, not to mention the bridges on I-79, 81, 83 that are to be proposed as well,” Lander said.
He said that the company has been at its current location since 1949, and wants to stay there, but it has to compete in a larger market than just Pennsylvania.
Sen. Scott Hutchinson questioned Lander on Pennsylvania being the third most expensive state for trucking, and what the diminishing returns and added expenses are doing to the industry.
Lander agreed that added expenses that keep “stacking on” make it harder for businesses like Klapec Trucking to be competitive with other businesses in surrounding states. He said that eventually his business will have to consider moving to another state to operate if the P3 tolling proposal goes through.
“If we need to move out of Pennsylvania, then that’s what we need to do to stay alive. It’s more of a survival mode type of thing,” Lander said.
Both Lander and Becker agreed that the impact of tolling would damage the local economy from a business standpoint, as everyone will be looking for ways to avoid such tolling.