Fork looms for transportation funding
HARRISBURG - The debate over new state transportation funding heads toward a fork in the road this fall with decisions on whether to provide revenue for all forms of travel or a narrower approach on critical infrastructure needs.
The Senate approved a bill last June outlining a comprehensive long-term spending plan for roads, bridges, mass transit, railroads, airports, river ports and biking and pedestrian paths.
The measure would generate up to $2.5 billion annually for transportation projects within five years by lifting the cap on the wholesale tax on gasoline within three years and increasing motorist fees and a surcharge on moving vehicle violations. The breakdown by year five under the bill is $1.9 billion for state and local roads and bridges, $510 million for mass transit and $115 million for the remaining transportation modes.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-28, Pittsburgh, said last week that he favors providing state revenue for critical needs and making greater use of a new state law encouraging private investment in transportation projects. But he said he would allow a House floor vote on the main transportation bills at some point.
Meanwhile, a state board gave a green light Friday to potentially contracting with private firms to replace and maintain some structurally deficient bridges.
The number of bridges contracted out for private replacement could range from 200 if only existing revenue is available to up to 1,000 depending upon the size of a revenue package, said Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch, chairman of the Public-Private Transportation Partnership Board.
A private firm would be responsible for designing and building a replacement bridge and maintaining it for several decades, but the state would retain ownership, said Mr. Schoch. Some structurally deficient bridges owned by local governments could be included in the program.
A private firm would bid for a contract and then receive annual payments from the state over the life of the contract provided it met program specifications. Individual House lawmakers have recently offered proposals to require the Transportation Department to use money to fix deteriorating weight-restricted bridges first before spending money elsewhere and to open additional state forest land for gas drilling to generate revenue for bridge projects.
The Senate bill sponsor warns of a cost to residents from doing nothing about transportation funding.
The cost will show up in vehicle operating costs and repairs, traffic congestion delays and more traffic accidents, said Sen. John Rafferty, R-44, Collegeville.
Funding shortfalls for mass transit will lead to more highway traffic and senior citizens and the disabled losing their link to medical services, he said.
The business community favors a comprehensive multi-modal funding bill that addresses the entire transportation system, said Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. Businesses use roads, bridges, railroads and airports to ship products and goods while their employees in metro areas depend upon mass transit to get to work, he said.
"We don't endorse this lightly," said Mr. Barr. "You will rarely hear me saying state government needs more resources."
Highway funding and mass transit need to be decoupled, said the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a Pittsburgh think tank emphasizing taxpayer issues.
"The vital importance of dealing with the maintenance and rehabilitation of the state's roads and bridges should rank as the first and top priority," said institute President Jack Haulk, Ph.D.