Talking up transportation

STATE COLLEGE – PennDOT Secretary Barry J. Schoch is predicting that Gov. Tom Corbett’s transportation funding program will create 50,000 jobs, primarily in Pennsylvania. He also said without the program, thousands of jobs in the transportation industry will be lost and the state’s roads and bridges will continue to deteriorate.

On Tuesday, Corbett presented his 2013-14 budget plan, which included a proposal to uncap the state’s Oil Franchise Tax, which is a tax on the wholesale price of fuel. That move would result in $1.8 billion in additional revenue five years from now, enough to complete many projects that are on the table because of the lack of funding.

Schoch, speaking to transportation enthusiasts at the Centre Area Transportation Authority garage on Whitehall Road said he has already told his district executives to prepare a list of projects that will be designed and constructed if the new money becomes available.

Each of the state’s 12 transportation districts is expected to post a proposed list on PennDOT’s website in March.

At the same time, PennDOT is seeking to streamline its own operations and make sweeping changes in the way it distributes its money.

The department, for instance, is planning to group bridges together for construction purposes to reduce the cost of engineering and construction.

By the fifth year of the program, when the Oil Franchise Tax is bringing in $1.8 billion in additional funding, the department will use $1.2 billion for roads and bridges, $250 million for mass transit, $200 million for locally owned roads, $80 million for multi-modal improvements to link highways, airports and rail installations and $85 million for turnpike expansion projects.

Schoch said he doesn’t know if the oil companies will pass the higher Oil Franchise Tax on to consumers at the pump.

He said prices at the pump depend on the cost of crude oil and refining, and they can fluctuate 25 cents in a week.

The fluctuation is not caused by taxes, he said.

Even if the oil companies do pass on the costs, it would mean only $2 per week to the average motorist – far below the 12,000 lost jobs, motorist safety and the deteriorating infrastructure if the state doesn’t get that money, Schoch argued.

“We are not doing our children any favor by kicking this can down the road,” Schoch said as he discussed the outcome of inaction by the Pennsylvania House and Senate.

State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, who was at the meeting, said even if motorists have to pay a little more, “the benefit will be there.

“This plan is thorough. This plan is what you want to see. … No doubt it will pass the Senate,” he said.

Corman said there is an urgency to take action on the transportation program because other proposals in the governor’s budget, including privatization of the state liquor system and pension reform, will probably get bogged down in debate as June approaches.

“If it gets into June, it [the transportation plan] could fall off the table. That would be tragic,” Corman said.

Schoch said there is a rule of thumb that for every billion dollars invested in transportation improvements, 25,000 jobs are created. With almost $2 billion in additional funds, that could mean 50,000 jobs.

Those jobs would be created by companies like New Enterprise Stone & Lime Co. Inc. of Blair Count, or the Glenn O. Hawbaker Co. of State College which provide thousands of construction jobs in Pennsylvania, New York and other areas.

Engineering firms also will be hiring, said Schoch.

Hawbaker president, Dan Hawbaker, attended Thursday’s briefing and said his firm’s employment has been down due to the lack of funds. He said his company has a couple of hundred suppliers, so every dollar that goes through his company is multiplied throughout the economy.

Steve Tomlinson, New Enterprise vice president and spokesman, said he is hoping that legislative action can be taken in time to spur new projects for the upcoming construction season, which begins in March or April.

“We definitely need more investment in our infrastructure,” he said.

PennDOT District 9 executive, Thomas Prestash from Hollidaysburg, said the additional funds will enable his district to address the large number of bridges and roads in need of upgrade and to complete a series of recommended safety improvements on Route 22 in Blair and Huntingdon counties.

Kevin Kline, the District 2 executive in Clearfield, said the new money would be used to upgrade Atherton Street in State College and to build a four-lane road along Route 322 from Seven Mountains into State College, a long-proposed project to reduce congestion on football Saturdays for those traveling from Harrisburg to State College.