Pa. bridge tolls are a new old controversy

Harrisburg

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — You know how people are — geologically speaking — relatively new on this planet? Turns out — in the wake of PennDOT’s proposal to fund bridge replacements by charging tolls to drivers who use the bridges — the idea of not paying to cross the river is, historically speaking, rather new.

Not that a T-Rex ever paid to cross the I-83 South Bridge (one of nine bridges across the state where PennDOT wants to add tolls). But whether right or wrong for the South Bridge now (and strong opinions are emerging on both sides), pretty much anyone who crossed the river until 1957 paid to do so, unless they rowed their own boats across.

First, in 1733, came the ferries, operated by John Harris, for whom Harrisburg was named, according to Dan Cupper, a local transportation historian. Tired of expensive, slow crossings, locals celebrated when the “Camelback Bridge” opened in 1817 where the Market Street Bridge is today.

But with a toll of 32 cents for a two-wheel vehicle with a horse — about $6 in 2021 dollars — it wasn’t long before people began grumbling about the tolling monopoly held by the only bridge in the area.

Relief came in 1890 when what’s now known as the Walnut Street Bridge, then the “People’s Bridge,” opened with far lower tolls (forcing the Market Street Bridge to lower its tolls in competition), according to Cupper, the historian, who also authored a book called — sure enough — “The People’s Bridge.”

For most of history, including the early-automobile period, nearly all bridges — and most roads that were more than a mud path — charged tolls, because they were private, said Jeremy Ammerman, who is the “cultural resource professional” for PennDOT District 8, the district that serves Harrisburg.

PennDOT’s predecessor, the Department of Highways, formed in 1903 and would eventually (in the 1940s) buy 10 toll bridges in the state, including the Market Street and Walnut Street bridges, with the idea of ending the tolls once the loans the department took to finance the purchase were paid off.

For “The People’s Bridge,” the honeymoon lasted barely a decade; by the early 1900s, local newspapers were editorializing against even the far lower tolls people were finally paying, compared to before that bridge’s construction.

“Bridge Should be Free Is the Opinion of All,” shouted a front-page headline in the June 2, 1909, Harrisburg Telegraph. The bridge tolls lasted until 1957, according to Ammerman, a decade longer than the Harrisburg Telegraph lasted.

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