Blog: PennDOT finds route around anti-tolls agenda

The state department has come out with a new plan to deliver its P3 bridge replacement program - but it comes at a cost

Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has faced a rough few months over its plans to deliver a new program of investment into the state’s bridges.

Protests over its proposals to toll nine bridges across the state culminated in a court case that the department lost, and this was followed by Governor Tom Wolf agreeing to pass legislation that substantially reduced the situations in which tolls could be imposed.

At first, that looked to have left PennDOT’s Major Bridge P3 Program dead in the water, despite already having a preferred bidder in place.

However, the authority was not to be so easily outdone, and has recently come up with a new plan that will see the P3 model maintained, but the tolls replaced by an availability-based approach. While this essentially means the money will come from the state and not the bridge users, the form of a P3 means it will be taken from revenue budgets and paid back over the long term, rather than requiring the state to stump up the capital cost up front.

Nonetheless, PennDOT made it clear when making this announcement that the fact the money will still come from state coffers means other projects will inevitably have to be cut back. Indeed, the new program plans for only six bridges to be replaced, instead of the original nine, with the remaining three left in limbo. PennDOT could only say the path forward for those “continues to be evaluated”.

Given that PennDOT identified these bridges as in need of renewal, delays could be potentially dangerous.

And this is not simply a problem for Pennsylvania: the US has over 43,500 bridges considered structurally deficient, according to the latest American Road & Transport Builders Association (ARTBA) report. It adds that 36% of US bridges need repair work and 78,800 should be replaced.

Furthermore, the report argues that at the current rate of renewal, it would take nearly 30 years to replace those bridges currently classed as structurally deficient.

It is therefore clear that new approaches need to be considered, developed and adopted to accelerate progress. P3s should be part of that mix, not least because they are particularly useful in allowing authorities to pass on the capital costs of projects to private parties, allowing them to repay the costs through revenue budgets over the longer term.

However, as the PennDOT experience shows, getting the messaging right around this is of prime importance.

By appearing to bypass local democracy and pass down edicts from above, the PennDOT plan came across as a somewhat heavy handed approach to inflict tolls on communities that had previously enjoyed free passage across their bridges. It may well have looked to some like the state attempting to grab more money from commuters, when in fact it was simply attempting to speed up the process of replacing dangerous bridges with safer ones.

Once again, we find ourselves back in a discussion about the gas tax: many people in those communities affected by the pennDOT plans will have felt they already paid for the maintenance of their roads and bridges through the gas tax - despite the reality that it goes nowhere near to covering the costs of maintaining what is already there, never mind paying for a brand new bridge.

In the end, the route that PennDOT is now taking may be more palatable to communities opposed to a toll but it is evident from the department’s plans that the upshot will be a reduction in the amount of public work it has the cash to carry out. 

Other authorities may want to take note. Ensuring that communities understand why they are being asked to pay for something that they used to get for free is never an easy task, but with a careful approach can be achieved.

However, the positive is that PennDOT has been able to keep the P3 project going, using a different model to the original toll plan. That could offer a route for more authorities looking to deliver new road and bridge projects where tolling is not an option - albeit at a lower volume than tolls may allow.

With so many bridges in need of urgent repair and replacement, getting the message across about the need to deliver new projects - and potentially ask users to pay for those assets - is an increasingly pressing matter.