Transportation funding in gear

When Gov. Tom Corbett signed a new transportation bill into law last Monday, it brought an end to years of contentious debate and indecision on ways to maintain the state’s thousands of miles of distressed highways and crumbling bridges.

It also gave hope in many areas that long-awaited projects, like Route 322 in Centre County and the Central Susquehanna Valley Highway between Williamsport and Harrisburg, would be completed despite costs ranging in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

There is even hope locally that the extra $2.3 billion a year to be received by the state transportation department would eventually fund projects that are not yet part of future plans, like the completion of seven miles of Route 219 from Meyersdale in Somerset County into Maryland.

An 11-mile stretch of Route 219, costing $305 million, moved into the construction phase this year, and Ed Silvetti, the executive director of the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission in Altoona, contends the project must be completed to take full advantage of the economic development potential of the road.

Yet, while no one bill could immediately satisfy the needs of all 67 counties in Pennsylvania, area officials, like Silvetti, who have been weighing in on the transportation funding debate for several years, are content with the end result.

Chamber director supports new bill

Joe Hurd, the president and CEO of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce, said his organization has been calling for a new revenue stream for PennDOT for several years.

The new act is “something similar” in terms of the amount of dollars the chamber has been calling for to address Pennsylvania’s needs, Hurd said.

According to a release after the bill was signed by Corbett during a ceremony in Centre County, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley said the new money will amount to about $2.3 billion to $2.4 billion annually “to help improve 10,000 miles of Pennsylvania roads and repair thousands of bridges.”

Most of the new revenue will come from the oil franchise tax, which was capped decades ago at $1.25 per gallon.

The cap over a five-year period will gradually be lifted to reflect the price of gasoline today.

Cawley mentioned that the state is not the only agency that will benefit from the increase revenue. He said that over the five years, Pennsylvania’s municipalities – cities, townships and boroughs – will receive more money through the state.

Funding to the municipalities will increase by $34 million this fiscal year, and $750 million in the next five years, he projected.

The new law gives counties an option to enact a $5 surcharge on vehicle registrations for local projects, and the prevailing wages mandates on state-funded projects have been raised from $25,000 to $100,000, a provision that will enable local governments to stretch their transportation dollars, Cawley stated.

A very tough problem

The debate over new funding for PennDOT has been going through most of the Rendell and Corbett administrations.

As Hurd emphasized, in his 17 years with the chamber, no issue has been more contentious or required more soul-searching than the transportation funding debate.

Under Ed Rendell, proposals were put forth to raise money by tolling Interstate 80 and leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The I-80 proposal caused a great deal of debate in this area of the state, and to demonstrate his point, Hurd said that one major trucking company represented in his organization favored the tolling proposal while

another major hauler opposed it.

In the Corbett proposal, the major issue was what effect an increase in the wholesale price of gasoline would have at the pump. Some maintained it means a 28-cent gasoline tax increase, but others didn’t accept the idea that the entire increase will be passed back to motorists.

He said it is unusual that the chamber, representing business, would support a fuel tax increase, but he said a lot of local jobs are related to transportation.

A study by the Altoona Blair County Development Corp. showed a growth in jobs locally related to transportation and warehousing, Hurd said.

He also said a local problem is getting people to area businesses. An improved transportation network will benefit business – and therefore job growth.

Hurd said that because of the emphasis on transportation funding through retired Congressman Bud Shuster and his son, Bill, now representing the 9th District, Blair County roads and bridges are in better shape than those in many counties, but there is still need for additional investment.

The chamber, for instance, wants improvements in safety for pedestrians at 17th Street and Pleasant Valley Boulevard, Hurd said.

“We are not trying to advocate for people to have to pay a lot of additional money. I think the issue got to the point [that] something needed to be done and quickly,” Hurd said as he explained the chamber’s support of the legislation.

Silvetti’s organization, the Southern Alleghenies, has the responsibility of coordinating planning for transportation programs in the rural counties of Bedford, Fulton, Huntingdon and Somerset, all part of PennDOT District 9, headquartered in Hollidaysburg.

Silvetti said Blair and Cambria counties have their own metropolitan planning organizations for transportation purposes.

He said his commission, consisting of representatives from all six counties, has supported a new transportation funding bill since the original study in the Rendell administration focusing on the lack of funds.

“[It is] no question Pennsylvania needs more revenue for bridges, roads and mass transit. The bill is a good bill. We are looking forward to moving on,” he said last week.

“Politics,” he said, “is the art of compromise. It seems all across the board [that] there is resistance to compromise on anything. You have to compromise for the common good. … Our board has supported it [a new funding bill] through any number of resolutions,” he said.

What it means

Now that the bill has become law, the meaning of it all it still somewhat murky.

Tara Callahan-Henry, a spokeswoman for District 9 in Hollidaysburg, said the amount of money to be received locally for roads and bridges isn’t known yet.

But she did come up with a few Blair County projects that are expected to see construction within two years:

– Canoe Creek intersection improvements, Route 22 and Juniata Valley Road, Frankstown Township, cost, $7,780,920.

– Frankstown Road- Route 22 Intersection improvements, cost, $6,373,628.

– Resurfacing of Route 764 from Sugar Run Bridge in Allegheny Township to 17th Street in Altoona, cost, $2,950,000.

– Safety improvements on Route 764 (Sixth Avenue) at Seventh Street, and Chestnut Avenue, cost, $2,950,000.

Design will begin on other major projects, she said:

– Safety improvements on 17th Street from Pleasant Valley Boulevard to Osgood Drive in Altoona and Logan Township, cost, $2,500,000.

– Replacement of the bridge over Mill Run, along 58th Street, cost, $2,775,500.

Vince Greenland, PennDOT assistant district executive for design, talked about many other road and bridge projects that are needed in Bedford, Cambria, Fulton, Huntingdon and Somerset counties.

The new bill means PennDOT can get to these projects much quicker, he said. He said PennDOT has been preparing for additional funding and summed up by saying, “We are ready to go.”

Help for the city?

Dave Diedrich, Altoona’s director of public works, is hoping the new money for local projects will help the city with the maintenance of its roads and bridges.

For several years, the city has been receiving less and less money through the state’s gasoline tax fund.

That money goes for wages in the highway department, for road salt and for the electricity used to operate the city’s stop lights. Money for road improvements also comes from the city’s capital and block grant funds, he said.

The bottom line, Diedrich said, is that the city has been investing about $600,000 annually to the care of its roads and bridges while the need tops $1.5 million.

“We are not paving at the rate we need to be, ” he said.

The new transportation legislation should help the city, he predicted.