Toll bridge commission reform bill dies

| 11/30/2004

Legislation to require state officials from Pennsylvania and New Jersey to conduct audits of the agency that sets tolls and manages bridges over the Delaware River has died.

The bill remained in Pennsylvania’s Senate Appropriations Committee when the session ended Nov. 21, effectively killing it for the year. It previously passed the House by a vote of 197-1.

Sponsored by Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Northampton, the measure was introduced in the summer of 2003 amid controversy about toll increases imposed a year earlier by the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission. The increases applied to seven toll bridges the commission maintains between the two states. The bill – HB1801 – addressed questions about how the toll revenue is to be spent, The Associated Press reported.

The increase hiked tolls on trucks from 80 cents per axle to $2.25 per axle. Tolls on cars were doubled from 50 cents to $1. In 2005, truck tolls are to increase again from their current $2.75 per axle to $3.25 per axle. Tolls on cars will then drop a quarter to 75 cents.

The bridge commission said the new rates were needed to help fund a 10-year, $526 million capital improvement plan, including expansions of the Scudder Falls and Route 1 bridges.

However, The Morning Call later reported that the commission intended to use about $250 million from the increases for unauthorized projects.

Although agency officials deny they misled anyone about the commission’s intentions, Freeman contended it was important “that annual joint state audits be conducted to ensure that toll revenues are being properly used.”

“Commuters using these bridges and paying these tolls deserve to know how the toll revenues are being used,” he said, “particularly in light of the revelation that the commission was planning on using some of the toll revenue for economic development that is beyond its stated mission.”

The provision was approved in New Jersey years ago but requires the same language to be approved in Pennsylvania, Congress and by the president before it can be implemented.

Freeman said he plans to reintroduce the commission reform legislation during the new session that begins in January.

Freeman said he sees reason for hope next year. “We did have some initial success in the House,” he said.