Officials: Some road projects could take time

BEDFORD – The state is set to pump millions into roads, bridges and transit over the next five years, but drivers shouldn’t expect bridge weight limits and long-delayed construction projects to disappear overnight, state transportation executives said Friday.

On the Bedford leg of a state tour promoting the General Assembly’s recently passed transportation bill, PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch, Turnpike CEO Mark P. Compton and PennDOT District 9 Executive Thomas Prestash hailed the funding package and dismissed criticism of the gas tax hike that makes it possible.

But, while the money will allow work to resume and limits to be lifted, it could be years before some projects are underway, they cautioned.

“You didn’t get to this point overnight, and you won’t get out of it overnight,” Schoch said.

Nevertheless, he called the bill, which Gov. Tom Corbett signed Nov. 25, “the most comprehensive, well-thought-out plan I’ve seen in my career.”

By the fifth year, the bill is set to generate at least $2.3 billion more annually, with gradually implemented wholesale gas taxes and motorist fees set to pay for road work and transit improvements.

Locally, that means safety improvements on the Route 22 Hollidaysburg-to-Huntingdon corridor, Prestash said.

Upgrades at the Route 22-Frankstown Road intersection and near Canoe Creek State Park – each with a price tag upward of $6 million, according to PennDOT representatives – could be given high priority, he said.

But bridge weight postings, set in August as legislators debated the bill, must remain until construction is scheduled, Schoch said. Even high-priority jobs like the Canoe Creek-area Route 22 bridge, set for work scheduling soon after the new year, must be approved before heavier vehicles can cross.

Rehabilitation work must be planned within two years for a weight limit to be lifted. If Canoe Creek work is set for 2015 or earlier, the limit could be removed soon. That could save a hefty sum for some industries, whose heavy vehicles faced long detours after the August postings.

Other possible work, including a Route 22 turning lane near the Duncansville Auto Oasis and better-timed adaptive traffic lights, could be on the horizon, thanks to the funding influx, Prestash said.

Concerns among some drivers and legislators that new taxes could make gas prices punishingly high are without merit, Schoch said at the Friday gathering at the Omni Bedford Springs Resort.

Prices will likely increase gradually, he said, but not at the shocking levels some have claimed.

And the bill’s yet-to-be-detailed funding boosts for mass transit will allow agencies like Amtran and Camtran to refurbish their fleets, Schoch said. He rejected some rural legislators’ claims that the bill pulls money from central Pennsylvania in favor

of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia’s transit systems.

“They’ve got the same issues we do. Their costs go up every year,” Schoch said of county-level transit authorities like Amtran. Officials haven’t said precisely how much money county transit lines will receive under the bill, but Schoch said some could receive enough to invest in modern environmentally friendly vehicles.

Funding goes both ways. Rural areas might pay into large, urban services like SEPTA and the Allegheny County Port Authority, but city drivers’ gas taxes and license fees subsidize central Pennsylvania roads, Schoch said.

Local governments both rural and urban can benefit from another of the bill’s provisions: $250 million more in liquid fuels money, which the state passes to municipalities for low-level road work, he said.

Liquid fuels money had shown signs of a decline over recent years for many small boroughs and townships, posing the long-term risk of property tax increases to cover construction.

“Obviously, everybody’s interested in what it means locally,” Schoch said. “This is a very strong bill for local government. Very strong.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.