By Chadwick Dolgos
Crafton resident and activist Pete Linko has started a petition to stop proposed tolls on Interstate-79 after learning PennDOT plans to move forward with an initiative that will toll multiple interstate bridges across the state, including one at the Bridgeville interchange.
“The whole idea of this petition is so that the voices of western Pennsylvanians and people across the region are heard,” said Linko.
Approved by the state’s public-private transportation board in November 2020, the proposal is an effort to speed up repairs and construction on bridges across the commonwealth by collecting revenue through user fees. Known as the P3, the transportation board is made up of representatives from both Pennsylvania's House and Senate.
“The Major Bridge P3 Initiative is designed to raise revenue through tolling to address the state’s growing backlog of major bridge replacement and rehabilitation needs,” said Alexis Campbell, press secretary for PennDOT.
Moving the plan forward another step, PennDOT announced Sept. 20 that it had chosen three candidates to submit proposals for the nine bridge plan. The widening and reconfiguring of the dual bridges at the Bridgeville interchange is estimated to cost between $100 and $150 million.
The bridges there are the only ones in the Pittsburgh area that PennDOT is currently considering for tolling. The other eight projects are located in Berks, Carbo, Clarion, Dauphin Lucerne, Jefferson, Philadelphia and Susquehanna counties.
When news regarding PennDOT’s plan broke in February, a number of representatives stood in opposition. State Sen. Devlin Robinson (PA-37) is sympathetic to Linko’s cause, saying the fight is still not over.
“People should voice their concerns with PennDOT,” Robinson said. “I think it’s irresponsible to put this toll in Bridgeville.”
Robinson said that he is fighting PennDOT on the location because there are too many secondary routes that would be frequented by commuters avoiding the tolls near Bridgeville, and that the surrounding areas are not equipped to deal with the increased traffic.
According to Campbell, tolling could begin as early as 2023. Each bridge candidate for the initiative must first receive an environmental clearance from the Federal Highway Administration. While rates have not yet been established, they are anticipated to be between $1 to $2 for passenger cars using E-ZPass.
“I saw they were taking bids and I thought, that doesn’t sound like a done deal,” said Linko, who was initially unaware PennDOT was moving forward with the initiative.
“Tens of thousands of commuters use that stretch of road every day just to get to work,”
Linko said. “This is an undue burden on western Pennsylvania taxpayers.”
Linko said he started the petition to stop the placement of tolls on I-79 because he believes that most people from Pittsburgh are opposed to this initiative but don’t know how to make their voices heard.
“People feel they don’t have a voice when it comes to agencies like PennDOT,” he said. “We are bringing this to the forefront so that people can stand against something that is going to hurt average Pittsburghers.”
Coraopolis resident Mike Sitler drives tractor-trailers for a living, delivering a variety of goods. While the newly implemented costs will likely be covered by his employer, he is more concerned with traffic backups.
“[Tolls] are the worst, just another thing to slow you down,” said Sitler. “If they’re backed up, then you’re delayed even more.”
Linko, a UPS worker also involved with a conservative advocacy group in Washington, D.C., is no stranger to petitions. In 2020 he started a petition to save the Point Park Christmas Tree in Pittsburgh after it had been announced that it was the tree's final year on display. The petition received more than 10,000 signatures and support from local elected officials, and the decision was soon reversed.
“The biggest thing we can do is contact PennDOT, contact our state reps., and share the information,” he said. “Just getting the news out to our friends that this is happening is one of the most important things we can do.”
The petition can be found on change.org and had accrued more than 540 signatures at the time of writing.