The Forgotten Link

Huntingdon County Commissioner Jeff Thomas traveled to Altoona a few weeks ago to testify in support of legislation that would provide more money for PennDOT to upgrade thousands of deteriorating roads and bridges.

“Pennsylvania needs it. Huntingdon County needs it,” Thomas said last week as he commented on transportation legislation being crafted by the state Senate, House and Gov. Tom Corbett.

Implicit in Thomas’s view on transportation is hope that, if more money is available to upgrade the state’s transportation systems, Huntingdon County eventually will see the construction of a four-lane Route 22 between Hollidaysburg and the Lewistown Bypass.

In the past 48 years, new highways in the Altoona area have been constructed with funding through the Appalachian Highway Development program.

That would include new Route 22 west of Altoona into Cambria County, Interstate 99 from the Turnpike to Interstate 80, and Route 219 in Cambria and Somerset counties.

Thomas said all around Huntingdon County new highways have been constructed, but as expenses for road construction and maintenance increased and transportation dollars at both the state and federal levels dwindled, the dream of completing the Hollidaysburg to Lewistown link faded.

A year ago, a new federal transportation act, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, became law, and among other things, it ended the Appalachian Highway Development Program that had been in place since 1965.

The Appalachian program provided money for highway construction in 13 states from New York to Alabama in an effort to improve the economy of impoverished rural areas.

An Appalachian highway system report in October 2012 stated that more than 2,300 miles of new highway had been constructed through the program, or 76 percent of the 3,090 miles originally designated for construction.

In Pennsylvania, the report stated, 453.1 miles of road were earmarked for construction with 335.9 having been built, many of those miles in Blair, Bedford and Cambria counties.

As the Appalachian program becomes history, there still remains 116.2 miles to be built in the state, about half those miles between Hollidaysburg and Lewistown.

But Pennsylvania has decided to apply its remaining Appalachian money to the construction of a section of Route 219 near the Meyersdale Bypass and with the upgrading of the Central Susquehanna Valley Expressway between Williamsport and the Harrisburg area.

That means there is no money in sight for a new Route 22 in the Huntingdon area.

In view of the lack of money and the massive need for funds just to upgrade and maintain the existing highway and bridge systems, there is doubt that new Route 22 will ever be constructed, said Ed Silvetti, the executive director of the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission.

The commission is an economic development agency for six area counties (Blair, Bedford, Cambria, Somerset, Huntingdon and Fulton), but it also serves as the transportation planning agency for the rural areas of those counties.

Anne Stich, the Southern Alleghenies transportation expert, said the cost of the Hollidaysburg to Lewistown link is now estimated at more than $1 billion.

Pennsylvania Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, agreed with Silvetti that Route 22 as a new road through Huntingdon is “not on the list.”

PennDOT’s District 9 office in Hollidaysburg last year completed a study that pinpointed a series of maintenance and safety upgrades along Route 22 that will be undertaken if new money becomes available at the state level.

That proposed $20 million in investment outlined by District Executive Thomas Prestash will go a long way to improve traffic flow on Route 22, Silvetti said.

He admitted, however, that the lack of funding for the new road “upsets people.”

Prestash expressed his feelings by saying, “Some call it the missing link. I’d say it is the forgotten link.”

But, in his heart he still carries hope.

“I’m going to be very optimistic,” he said.

Transportation bill

Gov. Corbett as recently as last Wednesday was on the road in an attempt to drum up support for new transportation funding legislation at the state level.

The Senate earlier in the year approved a bill that would lift the cap on the oil franchise tax, providing a hefty increase for road and bridge maintenance for the foreseeable future.

It proposes many changes in the way PennDOT operates as well as ways to funnel an additional $1.8 billion to $2.5 billion a year into the transportation funding stream.

Corbett held a news conference at the Southside Riverfront Park at the southern end of Birmingham Bridge in Pittsburgh, and he outlined possible highway and bridge improvements for the Pittsburgh area if the new legislation passes.

The Pennsylvania House is now considering its version of what a new funding bill would look like.

According to state representatives from Blair County, the House will be in a position to vote on a bill when it resumes deliberations in two weeks.

The Corbett administration and PennDOT Secretary Barry J. Schoch make several points discussing the funding issue.

Erin Waters-Trasatt, a spokeswoman for PennDOT, stated that more than 4,000 bridges are considered structurally deficient and 9,200 miles of road are in poor condition in the state.

PennDOT in recent months has been posting many bridges throughout the state with weight limits, a move to demonstrate how serious of a problem the state faces as it attempts to address the needs.

PennDOT also contrasts what could occur if the bill is not passed.

The number of roads in poor condition will continue to grow and by 2017 will reach 16,000 miles.

The bad roads will cause wear and tear on automobiles and congestion on roads will also increase, it is predicted.

The economy will suffer and Pennsylvania could lose thousands of jobs, PennDOT stated.

With increased funding and a massive reconstruction effort, Pennsylvania, PennDOT said, could see an additional 50,000 jobs created.

A study completed in 2010 attempts to show how important the transportation industry is in Pennsylvania’s counties, and in general, the economy as a whole.

The statistics prepared by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association state that the transportation construction industry means $6.9 billion annually to the state’s Gross Domestic Product.

The study reviewed the impact of transportation county-by-county pointing out that Blair has 352 miles of road and 104 bridges that are deficient – although these statistics date back to 2008. The report said that transportation employs 713 involved directly in road and bridge planning and construction in Blair and another 23,991 people who depend on transportation for their jobs – like those in the tourism industry.

It reported that 460 businesses in Blair rely on the transportation industry

for business.

The study stated that more than 90,000 workers in Blair, Bedford, Cambria, Centre, Clearfield, Fulton, Huntingdon and Somerset counties depend on the transportation industry.

But, even with all the effort by PennDOT and the Corbett administration to tout the need for money and the benefits that could be derived through increased funding, elected officials know that any dramatic changes can be politically sensitive.

Eichelberger, who is a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, is supporting the administration in its efforts to inject new funding into the system.

He said many of his conservative colleagues are wary that an increase in the Oil Franchise Tax on the wholesale price of gasoline could be passed on to the consumer.

He said he considers the lifting of the cap on the Oil Franchise Tax more of a “user fee” than a tax since those who drive on the roads and bridges will be footing the bill.

The proposed legislation passed the Senate 45-5, Eichelberger said his point being that it has bipartisan support.

He said the support came from Republicans and Democrats and from elected officials in the rural and urban areas.

The problem, he said, is that income into the highway and bridge system is not keeping up with inflation.

State Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, called the passage of legislation “the most important vote we can make in the first quarter of the 21st century.”

“I hope we can see this pass,” he said.

He said the vote on such an important issue should not be held up bickering over small issues.

He said it is a jobs issue as well as a safety issue.

On the House side, there are some tough issues that need to be resolved, said state Rep. John McGinnis, R-79th District, who wants to see fundamental changes in the way the state does business.

One of the key issues, he said, focuses on prevailing wage requirements which tend to increase the price of transportation projects.

Present law says that the prevailing wage does not apply to projects under $25,000, said McGinnis, but that figure was put in place in 1962.

He wants to see the prevailing wage raised so that smaller communities using their liquid fuel funds could stretch their funds to do more projects. He suggested the prevailing wage not apply to projects under $100,000.

If the prevailing wage requirement is addressed, McGinnis predicted strong support for the new transportation legislation, but he said such a move does not sit well with unions or with many Democrats.

McGinnis said that PennDOT should appropriate the money it needs for road and bridge repairs from its existing funds rather than provide so much support annually to mass transit in the major metropolitan areas of the state.

He is hesitant, he said, to “reach into the taxpayer’s pocket” until fundamental changes are made.

State Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg, said he plans to support the administration’s bill.

He said the Oil Franchise Tax has been capped at $1.25 a gallon for decades – meaning the tax is collected against only $1.25 per gallon of the price of gas – while the actual cost of gasoline has ballooned to between $3 and $4 per gallon.

Lifting that cap would mean the oil industry would pay its fair share, Stern said.

People said the tax will be passed through to the motorists, and Stern admitted that might be a possibility, but he said gasoline prices dramatically fluctuate between from one area of the state to the other anyway.

“We need to address our infrastructure,” he said.

The legislation, he said, will allocate money for municipalities to address road and bridge needs, which is a big reason why he will support the bill when it is brought to a vote in the House.

Silvetti said it is tough to measure the impact of new roads and upgraded infrastructure, but he believes that businesses take a hard look at access to markets when deciding where to locate.

One thing he would like to see is the completion of Route 219 from the section presently under construction in the Meyersdale area south into Maryland, a distance of about six or seven miles.

Maryland is willing to help Pennsylvania accomplish that goal and Waters-Trasatt of PennDOT confirmed that Maryland’s transportation department and PennDOT have met recently to discuss the completion of the road.

“We will remain engaged with Maryland as they investigate corridor improvements in their state and we’ll continue to work together on any further projects on the corridor,” she said, outlining Pennsylvania’s side of the story.