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PennDOT is considering tolls to pay for some bridge repairs despite sharp criticism

construction bridge pittsburgh infrastructure.JPG
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

On today’s program: A plan proposed during last week’s state House transportation committee meeting would see some bridge repairs paid for with new tolls on those same bridges, a move which drew sharp opposition; and two scientists explain why state forests and their native vegetation are suffering due to invasive species and an overabundant deer population. 

Tolls may get added to some Pennsylvania bridges
(0:00 - 7:01)

To travel the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you pay a toll. The money goes to maintenance of the roadway as well as operations for mass transit.

But what about tolling some of the state’s many bridges?

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation wants to toll nine bridges, including a few in western Pennsylvania, to pay for repairs. The western Pennsylvania bridges include a span of Interstate 79 near Bridgeville, and two bridges along Interstate 80, one in Clarion County and one in Jefferson County.

“The estimated price tag right now [for repairs] is about $2 billion,” says Margaret J. Krauss, WESA’s transportation and development reporter. “Design is still in flux for these repairs and also how tolls would be collected, but PennDOT officials were really clear that traffic would not slow to pay the toll.”

The proposal was brought to the state House Transportation Committee last week, although it was initially announced nearly a year ago with little enthusiasm.

“Right now, the reaction is largely split along party lines,” says Krauss. Many who testified at last week’s house committee said any tolls would hurt small businesses or low-income residents.

“Everyone, however, acknowledges there is a serious cost to doing nothing, these bridges need to be repaired, but right now, it’s still pretty divisive.”

PennDOT does not need the general assembly to approve the plan; the legislature passed a law in 2012 that allows PennDOT to work with private companies on long term projects, and assess user fees like tolls. However, some legislators say PennDOT is taking advantage of the law by using it to enact maintenance.

There are some alternatives to tolls, like using other federal or state funds, but Krauss says that money has largely been allocated to support transit and law enforcement instead of infrastructure repairs.

State forests are at risk of turning into shrublands
(7:01 - 22:30)

Forests cover about 60%  percent of Pennsylvania, according to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, but the forests in this state do more than offer shade on a hike or a view from your window.

They protect and preserve the biodiversity and native species in the commonwealth. Some of those species are under threat.

“To most people, including many of the people that come and visit this campus, it looks like a green eden, and natural rejuvenating place, but to ecologists like us, we look at this and see a catastrophe in the making and in progress,” says Ryan Utz, an assistant professor of water resources at Chatham University.

He’s referencing the suburban forest at Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus in Richland Township.

“There’s a lot of problems that we see turning up here that we aren’t quite sure how to properly manage, but that’s what the research that we’re working on is attempting to address,” says Utz.

Walter Carson, an associate professor of plant community ecology at the University of Pittsburgh, says the threats to urban and urban fringe forests are “exotic plant invaders.”

“Forests get the double whammy of both too many invaders, many species, and too many deer,” says Carson. He says solutions are difficult to agree on.

“Lots of people do not want hunting in their urban forest, they’re worried that someone could get hurt. … In more rural areas, the Pennsylvania Gaming Commission has used the Deer Management Assistance Program to bring deer numbers down over very large areas and that has helped to regenerate understories,” says Carson.

Carson and Utz say it’s likely forests of the future will become shrub-dominated spaces, with mostly invasive species taking root.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at ltsutsui@wesa.fm.
Rebecca Reese is a production assistant for The Confluence.
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