Hess hopeful deal can be struck

OSTERBURG – A day after PennDOT officials announced a plan to put weight restrictions on 1,000 more state bridges, House Transportation Committee Chairman Dick Hess said Thursday that he “knew this was coming” and hopes to dedicate the fall legislative session to passing a transportation funding bill.

Speaking at a Bedford County Chamber of Commerce legislative panel in Osterburg, Hess, R-Bedford, said he’s confident that the General Assembly can reach a compromise to fund bridge, road and mass transit projects for the coming several years. A $2.5 billion funding scheme easily passed the Senate in June, but died in the House as the summer session ended.

“There will be meetings throughout the summer, I can assure you of that,” Hess said. “It’s not just the bridges and the safety factor, but the economic factor.”

Hess criticized the failed Senate bill as larger than he’d like and insisted that few of the fee increases and speeding-fine hikes proposed this summer will make it to any final legislation. A plan to raise speeding fines by as much as $300 is simply too controversial to survive, he said.

“And in these economic times, I thought [$2.5 billion] was a bit heavy,” he said.

Hess sees himself in a middle ground between some Democrats, who have sought extra funding for mass transit agencies, and more extreme Republicans, who have criticized extra spending and the gas tax increases initially proposed in Gov. Tom Corbett’s bill.

An insufficiently large transportation bill will be practically useless, he said, as the state’s thousands of at-risk bridges will soon need more work anyway.

PennDOT head Barry Schoch has urged legislators to move quickly on funding while his department increases the number of weight-limited bridges by nearly 50 percent.

At the Osterburg meeting, state Rep. Carl Metzgar, R-Somerset, questioned Schoch’s decision to declare bridges unsafe as the House gears up for another transportation debate.

“It’s one hell of an irony that suddenly our bridges get posted when we’re trying to get a gas tax through,” Metzgar said. “I am appalled that the administration is willing to hold us and the bridges hostage so they can get a gas tax out of us. It’s absurd to me.”

Hess recognized the need to fund bridge and road upgrades, but said he can’t offer many specifics on a fall transport bill. Asked whether road funding will be unofficially tied to liquor privatization – as some Democrats have alleged since both proposals foundered in summer – Hess called the suggestion a rumor.

“I don’t have a crystal ball to know that,” he said.

While some in the General Assembly have already scheduled transportation meetings, including one state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, said he attended this week, Hess said he’s letting tempers cool before jumping into the transportation debate for the September House session.

“People just came off a very long and tense session. They want time to sit down, reflect a little bit,” Hess said. “Cooler heads prevail.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.