Up for the challenge

HOLLIDAYSBURG – State Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr. of Blair County said Tuesday that transportation funding in Pennsylvania is a “disaster,” adding that Act 44 passed in 2007 to provide an annual appropriation of $450 million to PennDOT from the turnpike “hasn’t worked” to resolve the problem.

Eichelberger, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee last year, minced few words when he was asked during his end-of-the-year report to his constituents to talk about some of state government’s challenges in 2013.

He referred to the agenda that Gov. Tom Corbett has laid out. Corbett has stated that the transportation funding problem will be an issue for 2013, as will be efforts to address the privatization of the state liquor stores and reform of the state pension system.

Speaking in his Hollidaysburg office, Eichelberger expressed concerns over the need for funding PennDOT road and bridges projects and other aspects of transportation.

He also said he believes the turnpike, laden with $7 billion in debt, should become part of PennDOT.

The Turnpike Commission oversees the finances and maintenance of the turnpike, but Eichelberger said the turnpike “has been a mess for decades.”

“I think we should turn the turnpike over to PennDOT,” he said, calling the operation of it “embarrassing.”

In 2007, the state passed Act 44, under which the turnpike would provide funds annually so PennDOT would have additional money for public transit and for road and bridge work throughout the state.

A key part of the plan included tolling Interstate 80, which never gained support from the public or from federal transportation authorities.

Two major studies in the past five years conducted by the Pennsylvania Transportation Funding and Reform Commission and a committee set up by Corbett cited the need for transportation funding reform to rebuild the state’s roads and bridges.

Corbett, beginning his third year in office, has listed transportation reform as among his goals for 2013.

When asked for comment about Eichelberger’s statements, PennDOT spokeswoman Jamie Legenos said that there would be no response.

She said, however, that the governor’s plan for transportation “will be coming out in the near future.”

Corbett will present his State of the State Message to the General Assembly on Feb. 5, according to a spokeswoman for his office.

Eichelberger also talked about a variety of issues that included his work as chairman of the Senate Local Government Committee, which is concerned about the increasing number of financially-distressed cities in the state, including Altoona, and the problem of the state issuing mandates to local government without providing funding to cover the costs.

He said legislation will be forthcoming to deal with the issue of unfunded mandates.

Eichelberger said his committee held hearings dealing with the state’s most notable distressed city – Harrisburg. Those hearings produced a list of issues that the Senate must deal with, he said.

Act 47, the state act designed to aid cities in a distressed condition, is “not well written,” he said.

He said that Altoona City Council asked for help under Act 47 at an early stage, noting officials “feel they can work their way out of it.”

Other problems facing cities includes tax exempt property. Anywhere from 35 to 60 percent of the property is tax exempt, and Eichelberger said cities need to look at what the nonprofit agencies do to determine if they should remain tax exempt.

Cities, like the state, are facing pension problems. Binding arbitration with police and fire personnel is another issue that should be studied, he said.

Eichelberger said the state will be taking a look at privatizing the management of the state lottery, which he believes is a “no brainer.”

He was also asked about Corbett’s lawsuit against the NCAA, challenging the sanctions against Penn State University because of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.

“I haven’t spoken to an attorney who says this is going to work,” he said of the governor’s challenge.

He pointed out that Penn State’s Board of Trustees agreed to the sanctions, and he questioned if it was a good thing to “dredge this all up” as Penn State seeks to move on.

He praised the job being done by both Penn State President Rodney Erickson and football Coach Bill O’Brien and also complimented the university for releasing the Freeh Report, which was an internal investigation of the Sandusky situation.

“That took a lot of guts,” Eichelberger said.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.