Money needed to start transportation projects

For the past two years, PennDOT has been “squeezing the rock,” trying to get the most out of the available money, said the agency’s deputy secretary for planning, James D. Ritzman.

Ritzman, speaking to the Blair County Chamber of Commerce monthly Breakfast Club on Thursday, said that despite attempts to stretch the state’s transportation dollars, the time has come for a major infusion of money so that 4,000 bridges in poor condition and the state’s 40,000 miles of road can be rebuilt.

He said Gov. Tom Corbett’s transportation plan released several weeks ago provides a good start by adding $1.8 billion to the annual transportation budget within five years.

He predicted that the lifting the cap on the oil company franchise tax levied on the wholesale price of gasoline, as Corbett is proposing, means the difference between losing 12,000 construction jobs to adding 50,000.

It means being able to rebuild the roads rather than covering up their deteriorated condition with paving that will deteriorate within a few years.

“We are on the brink of having a large problem with the pavement all across the state of Pennsylvania,” Ritzman said.

Lifting the cap on the franchise tax would in five years mean an extra $1.2 billion for highways and bridges, $250 million for public transportation, $200 million for local roads and bridges, $85 million for turnpike expansion projects and $80 million multi-modal projects, such as improving roads leading to rail and air centers, Ritzman said.

Ritzman was speaking to a friendly audience with Joe Hurd, chamber president and CEO, saying, “This [funding] has been an issue of ours.”

Don Detwiler, president of New Enterprise Stone and Lime Co. Inc, which is in the business of building roads and bridges, suggested that more than $1.8 billion might be needed for the state to catch up with the deferred maintenance and the new and enhanced highway improvements.

The last gas tax increase was 1997. Since that time, revenue from the gas tax has leveled off because of improvements in gas mileage, he said, while materials, like asphalt, have quadrupled in price.

Even if the General Assembly passes the governor’s proposal, it won’t have much effect on this construction season, Detwiler explained, calling the outlook “bleak” for this summer.

State Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, who discussed highway and bridge funding with Ritzman at the conclusion of the breakfast, said he wants to make sure taxpayers are protected. He suggested constructing projects without having to meet prevailing wage standards and making Pennsylvania a right-to-work state.

“No question we have an issue,” he summed up, but he said he doesn’t know what his vote on added transportation funding might be until he sees the specifics of the legislation.

Right now the plan is only an “outline.”

Ritzman said PennDOT’s efficiency has improved, citing highway occupancy permits now take 10 days when they used to take 40 to process. Billboard advertising inspection – making sure the ads comply with federal standards – will be done every two years, not every year, thus freeing up employees for other work, he said.

Plus PennDOT is using idle line-painting machines that cost $1.5 million, owned by the turnpike, rather than buying new ones, and the department has receive more than 1,000 employee suggestions.

Ritzman said PennDOT is also studying the way other agencies and businesses do things to get new ideas. “If somebody else finds a better way, let’s do it,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.