Senators Speak at Rally Opposing Bridge Tolling

HARRISBURG – Several Pennsylvania senators today joined members of the No P3 Bridge Tolls Coalition to voice opposition to the Wolf administration’s plan to toll interstate bridges in Pennsylvania, beginning with the following nine bridges:

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s (PennDOT) plan proposes tolling to pay for bridge projects and has received an overwhelming amount of disapproval, including members of the General Assembly, local officials, businesses and Pennsylvania residents.

Sen. Wayne Langerholc, Jr. (R-35), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, spoke at the rally. “It is never acceptable for the hardworking people of Pennsylvania to pay a new tax, fee or toll when gas prices are skyrocketing,” said Langerholc. “The court’s temporary halt reflects the bipartisan arguments in my DRIVE SMART Act, including Senate Bill 382. I will continue to call on Gov. Wolf and PennDOT to compromise with sensible solutions.”

PennDOT’s bridge tolling initiative would cost the average commuter an additional $1,000 per year and was moved through the process without legislative input nor approval.

“The process for adding tolls to interstate bridges was mired in a lack of transparency, citizen input and legislative oversight. It has been a sloppy, closed process that sets the precedent of more tolls in the future,” said Sen. Scott Hutchinson (R-21). “The cost to motorists, communities and employers is too great, as is the power claimed by PennDOT to implement and raise tolls on its own. There are other funding options for bridge maintenance and repairs. This process should be halted and replaced with one that is open and rational.”  

Langerholc, Robinson and Hutchinson co-sponsored Senate Bill 382, which reforms the P3 statute and voids PennDOT’s plan. However, Gov. Wolf has stated that he will veto the bill.

“Our roads and bridges absolutely need to be repaired. Thankfully, we already have the funding for these projects through the federal infrastructure bill,” said Sen. Devlin Robinson (R-37). “Instead of soliciting hardworking Pennsylvanians, we must work together to allocate our available resources while being transparent, which is exactly what PennDOT failed to do.”

The Commonwealth Court sided with Cumberland County and several municipalities surrounding the I-83 candidate toll bridge that challenged the plan as unconstitutional and has temporarily halted PennDOT’s entire bridge tolling plan with a preliminary injunction.  The court also heard a different case from several municipalities in the southwest surrounding the I-79 candidate toll bridge.

VIDEO: Senators speak at rally opposing bridge tolling

CONTACT:

Nolan Ritchie (Langerholc)

Justin Leventry (Hutchinson)

Elizabeth Weitzel (Robinson)

 

Robinson: Poll Watcher Empowerment Act Approved by Senate

HARRISBURG – The state Senate today approved the Poll Watcher Empowerment Act to ensure election laws are strictly adhered to and improve confidence in Pennsylvania’s elections, according to Sen. Robinson (R-37).

Senate Bill 573 makes the following changes to the Election Code:

  • Allows candidates from all political parties to increase the number of eligible poll watchers at a precinct from two watchers to three watchers.
  • Permits poll watchers to be inside the enclosed space where ballots are being counted or voting machines canvassed after polls close. They may observe but not interfere with the counting of ballots.
  • Permits poll watchers registered to vote in Pennsylvania to work at a polling place anywhere in the Commonwealth, regardless of which county they are registered to vote in. Allowing “out of county” poll watchers ensures that minority parties will have equal poll watcher representation at all polling places throughout the commonwealth.
  • Subjects any election official who blocks, impedes or otherwise intimidates a valid poll watcher to a second-degree misdemeanor penalty and increased fines and requires forfeiture of any pay received for election services. There were numerous instances in the 2020 election where poll watchers were denied access despite having valid certificates.
  • Guarantees that any poll watcher allowed to watch the pre-canvassing of mail and absentee ballots shall be permitted to have a clear line of sight to observe the process within six feet or less. This mirrors language of a Commonwealth court ruling in November 2020.

The bill does not change what a poll watcher can do while voting is taking place. It would double penalties for anyone who intimidates voters or interferes with the election process.

“I have heard many times from the constituents in my district on how discouraged they feel regarding the integrity of our elections,” Robinson said. “Improving transparency in the election process is something we should all welcome and this bill will go a long way to restore their trust.”

Senate Bill 573 was sent to the House of Representatives for consideration.

CONTACT: Elizabeth Weitzel

Senate Committees Pass Gebhard Bills to Increase Penalties for Hiring Unauthorized Workers and to Repurpose the Lieutenant Governor’s Mansion at Fort Indiantown Gap

HARRISBURG – Legislation sponsored by Sens. Chris Gebhard (R-48) and Devlin Robinson (R-37) to improve enforcement of the construction industry’s use of the federal E-Verify system was voted out of the Senate Appropriations Committee today.

The E-Verify system, which is administered by the United States Department of Homeland Security, determines the eligibility of employees – both U.S. and foreign citizens – to work in America. The Public Works Employment Verification Act already requires all public construction contractors, and their subcontractors, to use the federal E-Verify system to verify the legal employment eligibility of new hires. However, despite these requirements, the practice of hiring unauthorized workers continues because the enforcement mechanisms are feeble.

“Hiring unauthorized workers and paying them lower wages has given those construction companies an unfair advantage resulting in lower bids. Companies that are doing the right thing and following the law are losing business as a result,” Gebhard said. “Our bill is about more effectively penalizing the bad actors to level the playing field.”

To improve compliance, Senate Bill 1147 would make the financial penalties more meaningful. Rather than the current penalty of $250 to $1,000, violators would face a fine of $2,500 to $25,000. Senate Bill 1147 streamlines enforcement and reduces the need for time-consuming audits by requiring construction contractors to be enrolled in E-Verify upfront and makes it a punishable offense if they are not.

“Companies with strong business ethics should have every opportunity to participate in public construction jobs,” Robinson said. “Enforcing the E-Verify system ensures contractor employees are eligible and authorized to work in the United States, resulting in better business practices. Senate Bill 1147 will create a fairer construction industry, and I am proud to sponsor it with Sen. Gebhard.”

Another bill Gebhard sponsored was passed unanimously by the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee today. Senate Bill 1141 would give the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA) the authority to determine the best use of the former Lieutenant Governor’s Mansion and property at Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County. The DMVA would be required to provide equivalent facility space to support Pennsylvania service members, veterans and their families, and Gold Star survivor families, which are families who have lost a loved one who was serving in the armed forces.

Both bills now move to the full Senate for consideration.

CONTACT:    Matthew Urban (Sen. Gebhard’s office), 717-787-5708

Op-ed: No Water Under a Tolled Bridge

In February of last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) unveiled its plan to toll nine interstate bridges through a Public-Private Transportation Partnership (P3), claiming it is “designed to raise revenue through tolling to address the state’s growing backlog of major bridge replacement and rehabilitation needs.” It did so via an illegal process that lacked transparency, refused public input and abused the checks and balances process.

Fifteen months, several court cases, and thousands of constituent and legislator complaints later, opposition to the P3 bridge tolling initiative continues. But will PennDOT and Gov. Tom Wolf finally listen?

One bridge PennDOT plans on tolling is right here in Allegheny County – the I-79 bridge near Bridgeville. But if Pittsburgh is the “City of Bridges,” why is tolling one bridge a big deal?

Nearly 90,000 people travel I-79 every single day. Therefore, 90,000 people will have to hand over $2 morning and evening to cross the bridge during their daily commute, costing almost $1,000 a year. Most individuals will not have the means to afford such costs just to travel their normal route, which means they will find an alternate route. Thousands of commuters finding an alternate route will congest local roads, increasing both travel time and safety concerns for citizens and emergency services.

Municipalities will then be responsible for the depreciation costs for local road maintenance – more cars on the road results in more wear and tear. Bridgeville and the surrounding areas are already overwhelmed with traffic. Additional traffic will increase hardships for our small businesses due to parking lots and roads already operating at capacity. This unconstitutional plan will also have catastrophic effects on business development in a region that has seen growth and significant investments in recent years. Not only will it reduce the ability of our region to be competitive in attracting new businesses, but it is a major deterrent to existing employers looking to expand or relocate.

In April 2021 during a budget hearing, I asked PennDOT’s secretary if the P3 board completed the survey, which is required by federal regulation, regarding the impacts of the other roads that will see increased traffic as drivers avoid the tolls. PennDOT’s secretary confirmed that they did, indeed, complete the study. The following week in a separate budget hearing, PennDOT stated it was still conducting the bridge tolling diversion study. When this contradiction was cited, PennDOT avowed that its secretary “misspoke.” The inconsistency and lack of transparency is unacceptable, especially from such a significant department.

I also asked PennDOT if the money generated by the toll would be used solely for the bridges that are going to be replaced, and not for any other projects in its general fund. In response to my question, PennDOT’s Alternative Funding Program Director explained a hierarchy of ways those funds will be spent, including annual availability payments to the developer, toll-related administrative and processing costs, payments to a strategic reserve account with an initial cost of $475 million and a post-tolling assessment before any excess revenue is committed to Allegheny County.

It is still uncertain as to why these bridges were chosen when PennDOT can replace other bridges without having to toll them. Why toll this bridge, which is already structurally sound? That is the main question I am often asked by my constituents, and I demand PennDOT to provide answers.

Gov. Wolf and PennDOT developed this overreaching plan with no input from the General Assembly, while completely omitting checks and balances. They illegally moved forward with the P3 initiative and ignored the voices of the people.

The opposition to PennDOT’s plan has been strong and apparent. Two separate cases have already been filed in the Commonwealth Court. In November 2021, three local municipalities, including Bridgeville Borough and South Fayette and Collier townships, challenged the constitutionality of the tolling plans. On May 18, the Commonwealth Court granted a preliminary injunction, halting the plan until further court action occurs. I commend these community leaders and am pleased to see the court favor their case.

Our roads, and especially bridges, absolutely need to be repaired. Thankfully, we already have the funding and sources for these projects. Pennsylvania is on the road to receive $13 billion over the next five years for highways and bridges through the federal infrastructure bill. When PennDOT first shared the P3 bridge tolling plan, Pennsylvania was not guaranteed the necessary funding to repair our roads, highways and bridges. However, we now have bipartisan infrastructure money, and we should allocate it appropriately.

We need to come together and have a conversation about utilizing the funding that is already provided to us, not placing the financial burden on the backs of our constituents – many of whom are already struggling because of staggering inflation and rising costs for food, fuel and energy.

This is why I’m proud to co-sponsor Senate Bill 382, which reforms the P3 statute and voids PennDOT’s plan. It also increases transparency by requiring PennDOT to publish a detailed analysis prior to the P3 board’s voting meeting and mandating PennDOT to distribute a copy of the resolution, with or without a user fee, within 24 hours. Additionally, the bill incorporates public input by creating a new 30-day public comment period prior to the P3 board’s voting meeting.

Upsettingly, Gov. Wolf has made it known that he will veto the bill, even though it has received bipartisan support. Why is he refusing other ideas while ignoring the major disapproval? We have the resources to fund the necessary projects for our highways and bridges.

My colleagues and I were elected to represent our constituents by being their voice in Harrisburg. Why are we being disregarded on such a major issue?

Let’s do it the right way. We must discuss alternatives to tolling our residents, because now is not the time to solicit them for more money. Pull up a chair, Gov. Wolf. We are already at the table.

Senate Committee Passes Gebhard, Robinson Bill to Improve Fairness in Construction Industry

HARRISBURG – Legislation sponsored by Sens. Chris Gebhard (R-48) and Devlin Robinson (R-37) to improve enforcement of the construction industry’s use of the federal E-Verify system was voted out of the Senate Labor and Industry Committee today.

The E-Verify system, which is administered by the United States Department of Homeland Security, determines the eligibility of employees – both U.S. and foreign citizens – to work in America.

Despite the Public Works Employment Verification Act already requiring all public construction contractors and their subcontractors to use the federal E-Verify system to verify the legal employment eligibility of new hires, enforcement is weak.

“Hiring unauthorized workers and paying them lower wages gives construction companies an unfair advantage as those reduced operating costs can translate to lower bids, costing companies that follow the law business as a result,” Gebhard said. “Our bill is about more effectively penalizing the bad actors to level the playing field.”

To improve compliance, Senate Bill 1147 would make the financial penalties more meaningful. Rather than the current penalty of $250 to $1,000, violators would face a fine of $2,500 to $25,000.

Senate Bill 1147 would streamline enforcement and reduce the need for time-consuming audits by requiring construction contractors to be enrolled in E-Verify upfront and make it a punishable offense if they are not.

“Companies with strong business ethics should have every opportunity to participate in public construction jobs,” Robinson said. “Enforcing the E-Verify system ensures contractor employees are eligible and authorized to work in the United States, resulting in better business practices. Senate Bill 1147 will create a fairer construction industry, and I am proud to sponsor it with Sen. Gebhard.”

The bill now moves to the full Senate for consideration.

CONTACT:    Matthew Urban (Sen. Gebhard’s office), 717-787-5708

                        Elizabeth Weitzel (Sen. Robinson’s office), 717-787-5839

Robinson, Mihalek Announce $500,000 in RACP Funding for Bethel Park

(HARRISBURG) – Sen. Devlin Robinson (R-37) and Rep. Natalie Mihalek (R-40) today announced grant funding recently awarded to Bethel Park through Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP).

The Municipality of Bethel Park will receive $500,000 for the installation of new recreation light poles at two existing turf lacrosse and soccer fields located at Village Green Park and Millennium Park.

“These parks have become fixtures in the local community and have helped make Bethel Park a great place to live, work and play,” Sen. Robinson said. “I’m pleased to see state investment in this project so that these facilities can be safely utilized into the evening hours and in the spring and fall months. I thank Rep. Mihalek and the officials at the Municipality of Bethel Park for working with me to help secure this funding.”

“I am thankful for the opportunity to work with Sen. Robinson to bring this project to fruition,” said Mihalek. “Bethel Park has already made several recent improvements to its parks. Adding lights to these fields is yet another means to make this area a great place to live and raise a family.”

RACP is a Commonwealth grant program administered by the Office of the Budget for the acquisition and construction of regional economic, cultural, civic, recreational, and historical improvement projects. RACP projects are state-funded and cannot obtain primary funding under other state programs.

CONTACT: 

Elizabeth Weitzel  (Robinson)

Jordan Frei (Mihalek)

Robinson, Ortitay Announce Funding for Oakdale Borough Flood Mitigation

HARRISBURGSen. Devlin Robinson (R-37) and Rep. Jason Ortitay (R-46) announced today $325,000 in state funding awarded to Oakdale Borough for flood mitigation efforts and stormwater and bridge repair, responding to several instances of catastrophic flooding in recent years.

“This is an imperative investment for Oakdale, where residents and businesses have long been impacted by severe flood damage,” said Robinson. “This funding will ensure that Oakdale Borough residents and surrounding communities can be certain the problems causing the devastating flooding will be corrected. I commend the borough officials and Rep. Ortitay for their willingness to work together.”

“I’d like to thank Sen. Robinson for his support and efforts in making this grant a reality for Oakdale,” said Ortitay. “Since Sen. Robinson took office, we’ve worked together on this issue by engaging with borough council and residents to come up with ideas to mitigate flooding. I’d also like to thank Oakdale Borough Council for being persistent and for working with us to develop several solutions and a path forward. When you work together, great things can happen.”

The funding was awarded through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

CONTACT:

Elizabeth Weitzel  (Robinson)

Tracy Polovick (Ortitay)

Robinson Criticizes PennDOT Decision to Contract with Foreign-Based Company, Ongoing Insistence to Move Forward with Bridge Tolling Plan

HARRISBURG – State Sen. Devlin Robinson (R-37) today criticized the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) on their plans to negotiate with a nine-member group of contractors headed by an Australian firm to replace 9 bridges proposed for tolling with an estimated cost of $2.5 billion.

“I am once again disappointed to see PennDOT’s ongoing insistence to move forward with their bridge tolling scheme and add insult to injury with yesterday’s decision to negotiate with a group headed by a foreign company,” said Sen. Robinson. “It is insulting to see the Department choose a foreign entity over the many Pennsylvania companies that are more than qualified to do this work.”

PennDOT will now enter into a Pre-Development Agreement with the Bridging Pennsylvania Partners (BPP), which includes Australian-based Macquarie Infrastructure Developments and 8 other firms. 

Robinson, a vocal opponent of PennDOT’s plan to toll nine bridges across Pennsylvania, including the I-79 bridge near Bridgeville, Allegheny County, is also a prime sponsor of a bill to put the brakes on the tolling plans. Senate Bill 382 reforms the Public-Private Transportation Partnership (P3) statute, and voids the PennDOT Pathways Major Bridge P3 Initiative.

CONTACT: Elizabeth Weitzel; eweitzel@pasen.gov, 717-787-5839