Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court on Thursday ruled to stop a tolling plan that would have affected nine bridges throughout the state.

In November 2020, the state Department of Transportation’s (PennDOT) Public-Private Transportation Partnership Board voted to open the door to tolling bridges on Interstate 78, Interstate 79, Interstate 80, Interstate 81, and Interstate 83 to fund their repair or replacement. Cumberland County, Bridgeville Borough, South Fayette Township, and Collier Township eventually sued Governor Tom Wolf’s (D) administration to prevent the state from establishing the collection booths.

Wolf argued that the Republican-run General Assembly, in approving Act 88 of 2012, ceded its authority to stop such a tolling plan. The governor’s opponents contended that the Board could not place levies on bridge travel without completing a a cost/benefit analysis and that it could not approve a tolling plan without specifying which bridges would be affected – a decision that was made later. Last month, the Commonwealth Court sided with the opponents and placed an injunction on PennDOT’s scheme. As a result of this week’s ruling, the plan cannot be resumed unless the judgement is successfully appealed. 

State Representative Jason Ortitay (R-Bridgeville), a leader in the opposition to the governor’s plan, called the idea a “boondoggle” and exhorted PennDOT to let the policy stay dead instead of pursuing further legal action.

“I realize that PennDOT rarely listens to anyone in the Legislature, but I urge it to not appeal this ruling, which will cost the Commonwealth’s taxpayers more money and waste the court’s time,” he said in a statement. “Instead, the agency needs to sit down and work with the General Assembly to come up with a comprehensive plan that addresses transportation needs without creating an undue burden on the commonwealth’s residents.”

Many of Ortitay’s fellow Republican legislators praised the court for blocking a policy that they consider economically detrimental to Keystone State residents.

“My constituents in Susquehanna County live right on the border of New York,” State Senator Lisa Baker (R-Dallas) said. “They shop [for] groceries in Binghamton; they [have] doctor appointments in Vestal, NY. Unfortunately for them, that tolling would have meant a significant impact for their daily activities, their daily lives and [the court decision]’s a win for them, so I’m delighted with the court ruling.” 

The Democrats who currently control PennDOT may not have much hope of getting a sympathetic ruling from the Supreme Court if the agency chooses to appeal the Commonwealth Court’s decision. Although Democrats currently dominate the state’s high court, the Commonwealth Court’s ruling was bipartisan and authored by a Democrat, Judge Ellen Ceisler. 

“… We agree with Petitioners that Respondents failed to comply with the duties set forth [by PennDOT rules],” Ceisler wrote in her opinion. “It is clear, and Respondents have not denied, that the Board had no specific bridges in mind when it approved the Initiative in November 2020. There is no indication that the Board engaged in any meaningful consultation with ‘persons affected’ by the Initiative, as Act 88 requires.”

– – –

Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Pennsylvania Turnpike” by Otto Yamamoto. CC BY-SA 2.0.