CLARION – Calling it a tremendous blow to the local economy, state Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion), Rep. Brian Smith (R-Brookville), state Sen. Scott Hutchinson (R-Oil City) and Sen. Cris Dush (R-Brookville) last week reiterated their steadfast opposition to tolling any part of Interstate 80.
Together, they urged residents and businesses to make their voices heard as part of the public input process in the next few weeks.
On Thursday, PennDOT officials announced nine bridges across the state — including one each in Clarion and Jefferson counties — are being considered for the department’s Pathways Major Bridge P3 Initiative. As part of the program, the bridges would be rebuilt and paid for by tolling.
Specifically, one is located over Canoe Creek in Beaver Township and the other above North Fork Creek in Brookville Borough and Pine Creek Township. In total, four of the nine proposed bridge projects are located on I-80.
“From the day I took state office and as a local official before then, I have remained adamantly opposed to tolling I-80 in any form,” Oberlander said. “Identifying these two bridges as being ‘good candidates’ for this project makes no logical sense to me. Although they are in need of repair, tolling them will not result in the funding PennDOT may think. Motorists will avoid these two bridges, thereby adding stress to other routes; drive away potential economic development; and add to the costs of existing families, seniors, nonprofit organizations, small businesses and manufacturers. Our area cannot afford this.”
“Time and time, and time again we’ve heard some Harrisburg politicians and bureaucrats use the same tired excuses to raise taxes on Pennsylvania motorists, only to watch them raid those funds for other purposes altogether,” said Hutchinson. “And now we have the dubious distinction of paying the second highest gas tax in the entire nation. This bridge tolling scheme, which disproportionately effects rural Pennsylvanians, is just another backdoor tax on hard-working citizens who use freeways like I-80 on a regular basis.”
“If you’re looking for a present-day example of blatant highway robbery, look no further,” said Smith. “As a self-employed business owner of a family-operated transportation company and a freight brokerage company, I cannot fathom why the governor and PennDOT, especially in the midst of pandemic recovery, are once again moving forward with tolling I-80 and other critical portions of our local and state infrastructure. The people of Jefferson and Indiana counties cannot afford the crippling economic consequences of tolling our major highways and bridges, businesses operating or wanting to relocate within the I-80 corridor cannot afford this, and in the bigger picture, taxpayers across the commonwealth cannot afford this guaranteed-to-fail revenue generating scheme.”
“In talking with the secretary of transportation, I am not convinced that this was well thought out nor does it address the significant disparity between the amount of money western Pennsylvania already sends to PennDOT in gas taxes versus the amount of money that we get back to our region,” Dush said. “For over 50 years I’ve seen the impact on the borough of Brookville whenever there is an accident on I-80. Truck traffic diverted through Brookville’s Main Street and back out to I-80 between the Brookville and Hazen exits has a devastating impact on the businesses downtown. If they place these tolls, it’s going to have a daily impact on Brookville borough and its businesses that neither can afford.”
PennDOT said they will consider minority and low-income populations, diversion routes through local communities and impacts of tolling infrastructure in their final decision. Once these studies on the impact of tolling are completed this spring, PennDOT will present the findings for public review and comment in a virtual public meeting. During the meeting, the team will also share project details, such as engineering design, environmental impacts, construction schedule and maintenance and protection of traffic during construction.
The Clarion County project is currently in final design. Construction is anticipated to begin between 2023 and 2025 with a three- to four-year construction period. The Jefferson County project is currently in preliminary design, and construction is anticipated to begin in 2024.
The local lawmakers said that to let the department know how harmful tolling would be on the local communities, residents, business owners and anyone impacted by the potential of tolling can reach out using the following tools:
• Canoe Creek. Website: www.penndot.gov/i80CanoeCreek (Scroll to bottom of page to access link to submit comment.) Email: i80CanoeCreek@pa.gov. Phone: (814) 201-9939. Mail: PennDOT District 10-0, c/o I-80 Canoe Creek Bridges Project, 2550 Oakland Ave., Indiana, PA 15701-3388.
• North Fork Creek. Website: www.Penndot.gov/i80NorthFork (Scroll to bottom of page to access link to submit comment.) Email: i80NorthFork@pa.gov. Phone: (814) 796-5009. Mail: PennDOT District 10-0, c/o I-80 North Fork Bridges Project, 2550 Oakland Avenue, Indiana, PA 15701-3388.
In the meantime, the lawmakers said they will be actively engaged with PennDOT and other relevant stakeholders to convince the state agency that these two projects should not be part of the Pathways Major Bridge P3 Initiative.