Transportation officials wary of plan

PennDOT warns that state budget gap proposal could cut needed funding for Amtrak service

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / Westbound travelers wait on the Altoona platform for the Amtrak Pennsylvanian to stop Friday afternoon. A plan by a group of Republican lawmakers to close the state budget gap has led transportation officials to warn of major service cuts if it passes — including the possible end of the only passenger rail service through Altoona.

A plan by a group of Republican lawmakers to close the state budget gap has led transportation officials to warn of major service cuts if it passes — including the possible end of the only passenger rail service through Altoona.

The so-called Taxpayers’ Budget, conceived by a group of rank-and-file GOP representatives, would pull more than $2 billion from a collection of state funds and accounts to close three years’ worth of budget shortfalls.

While its backers have said the plan will spare taxpayers and avoid risky borrowing, officials have warned it could slash services across the state.

“They’re looking at draconian cuts,” Amtran General Manager Eric Wolf said of fellow transit directors elsewhere in the state.

Officials with local and state transportation agencies have raised similar alarms, with PennDOT representatives warning that train service in western Pennsylvania could be effectively eliminated.

“Loss of this money would eliminate the needed funds to maintain Amtrak’s cross-state Pennsylvanian passenger train between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and serving Altoona,” PennDOT Communications Director Rich Kirkpatrick said, “at a time when many in western Pennsylvania have been advocating for additional service.”

The fears can be traced to the General Assembly’s failure to pass a funding plan for its own 2017-18 budget. While lawmakers managed to pass a budget plan this summer, they did not settle on a final means to close the gap between revenue and planned expenses.

Increasingly worried officials have raced against the clock to find a plan to close the gap, with the Senate voting in July to borrow cash and raise some fees and taxes.

But the latest House plan — led by Rep. Dan Moul, R-Gettysburg, and backed by colleagues from several counties — would instead pull money from existing state funds. Among them are the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund, the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund and the Multimodal Transportation Fund.

“Members of the General Assembly are tasked with being good stewards of your hard-earned dollars,” Moul wrote last week in a press release. “We cannot ask more of our taxpayers when there is a viable alternative.”

It’s the transportation plan that has led to some of the most outraged responses. The plan would pull $120 million from the fund, which contains close to $190 million.

Established by the General Assembly in 2013, the multimodal fund helps pay for local mass transit, pedestrian and bike upgrades and train service — essentially anything not on a state highway.

Dipping into that fund could have an immediate impact locally, Wolf of Amtran said.

“We will be looking at severe service cuts,” he said.

Wolf said Amtran is expecting six new buses next year, paid for from the multimodal fund and slated to replace 40-year-old predecessors. If the fund is cut, the new buses will be gone, he said.

“They’re acting like this is money that’s just lying around in surplus,” Wolf said. “It’s not. A lot of this has been committed to transportation projects, which is what it was intended for.”

Passenger rail supporters, who have waged a multiyear battle to preserve and expand railroad service in the state, see the budget plan as an existential threat. The multimodal fund has helped Pennsylvania pay for Amtrak service after a federal rule change passed financial responsibility to the states.

Mark Spada, president of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail — a group that fought to preserve rail service through Altoona in recent years — said officials have specifically cited the local line as an at-risk service. A single Amtrak train, the Pennsylvanian, runs east and west once daily between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.

“We don’t want to see anybody affected through this proposal,” he said.

Spada said investment in regular Amtrak service between Harrisburg and Philadelphia has yielded positive results. Rail advocates have pushed for similar improvements on this side of the state, with state studies discussing possible expansion or new lines.

A cut to the multimodal fund could threaten those efforts, he said.

“There’s been quite a bit of support (for expanded service) from municipalities between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh,” Spada said. “We’ve seen letters of endorsement, community and government leaders speaking out in support.”

Road improvements could be threatened, as well, state officials said. A list of multimodal funding requests for 2017-18 includes an $862,000 project in Altoona: a 3,500-foot corridor featuring easier bike traffic, environmentally friendly infrastructure and rain gardens.

Rep. John D McGinnis, R-Altoona, dismissed officials’ warnings that the fund transfers would impact services. Those chosen for the plan, he said, often take in more money than they spend. McGinnis said he backs the Taxpayers’ Budget over other plans to borrow or raise fees.

“I think it’s nonsense,” McGinnis said of warnings like those from Amtran and PennDOT. “These are moneys already paid in by taxpayers. Not one operation is going to be changed in the coming year. Not one employee is going to lose their job.”

Rep. Judy Ward, R-Hollidaysburg, said she, too, plans to vote for the measure. She stressed that the plan’s creators carefully investigated the funds they hope to use and remain confident services wouldn’t be hit. McGinnis and Ward said they have already been contacted by groups that fear effects from the budget plan. Groups like Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail have urged supporters to call their lawmakers and fight the proposal.

“I’ve gotten emails for two weeks now. … Everybody has their turf to protect,” McGinnis said. “But the turf I’m protecting is the taxpayers’.”

The plan’s hopes remain uncertain. Wolf has expressed opposition, as have some representatives in both parties.

Wolf of Amtran said he suspects voters will oppose a plan that could be seen as targeting specific, tangible programs and services. But transportation advocates can’t merely hope for the plan to collapse on its own, he said.

Even McGinnis expressed lukewarm hopes for the bill. There’s a good chance it doesn’t yet have the votes to pass, he said, although he argues it should be put up for a vote so lawmakers can be on record.

Representatives have been told they will stay in Harrisburg indefinitely, beginning Monday, until they pass a revenue plan.

“I got several calls: ‘Are you on board? Are you sure you’re on board?’ They’re carefully counting votes on it,” Ward said. “I just don’t see any other way out of this.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.