I-83 South Bridge Tolls? Speak now — right now — or forever hold your peace

Harrisburg

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — It’s a project that’s been under consideration for more than a decade to replace a six-decade-old bridge — a project that will take years, assuming it proceeds. But a key part of it — your best chance to impact the plan — ends this coming Monday, March 29.

PennDOT is holding what it calls an “on-demand virtual public meeting” to provide information and gather comments, whether about the overall project itself (PennDOT says it’s more efficient to build a new bridge than continue maintaining the 61-year-old bridge) or how to pay a cost of up to $800 million (PennDOT favors charging bridge users via tolls).

To learn more about the project and tell PennDOT how you feel, click here. You’ll see a form at the bottom for submitting comments — again, only through Monday.

“We definitely want to hear from people,” said David Thompson, community relations coordinator for PennDOT District 8. “We’re taking the comments seriously, and we seriously do want to … know what they think about this project.”

PennDOT has said the old bridge is at the end of its useful life. Thompson compared the trade-off between replacing it to buying a new car, which requires an up-front investment but can be more efficient in the long run than continuing to maintain an old car.

He also said a new bridge would have longer merge lanes plus provide safe lanes for bicycles and pedestrians.

But what has been most controversial is not whether to replace the bridge — but how to fund a replacement for what’s officially the John Harris Bridge, more commonly known as the South Bridge.

Ironically, the bridge’s opening roughly coincided with the end of centuries-old tolls on other bridges across the Susquehanna River.

Thompson said there’s no painless way to raise $800 million.

“It’s a very expensive project, and not having some sort of funding in place for that would have some significant impacts on our overall transportation program statewide,” he said.

The South Bridge is one of nine bridges across Pennsylvania under consideration for tolls.

PennDOT has said tolls have successfully addressed similar needs across the U.S. But elected officials representing constituents in Cumberland and York counties, especially — including people who commute to jobs in Harrisburg, who could be most impacted — have condemned the idea.

Shirley Kumler, walking Tuesday with co-workers in downtown Harrisburg, was unaware of the opportunity to comment — and was glad to hear about it.

“I’ll do that,” she said. “That I’ll do!”

For avoidance of doubt, how does the South Bridge commuter feel about the tolling plan?

“When we heard about it, we were like, ‘Oh, no no no no,'” she said, characterizing her reaction and that of co-workers. “If it needs to be fixed, then do something other than put a toll there.”

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