States should brace for funding pinch

Blair and its neighboring counties have reaped many economic benefits from the “arrival” of north-south Interstate 99 and the rebuilt Route 22 from Blair westbound.

However, the sector of this county east of Hollidaysburg has missed out on many of the economic possibilities it might have witnessed if plans to extend the limited-access Route 22 past Duncansville and Hollidaysburg, east to the Huntingdon County line and beyond, hadn’t died in the 1970s due to a combination of public opposition and state Department of Transportation poor judgment and stubbornness.

In the late 1960s, PennDOT began pushing a controversial “22” corridor through the Hollidaysburg Area School District complex. Rather than opt for one of several other identified corridors that would have allowed construction of the new highway to proceed without intense opposition, PennDOT abandoned its Hollidaysburg-to-points-east plan.

Although the construction alternatives might have been more costly, that additional cost now would be considered minuscule when stacked up against the cost of building the highway sector in question in 2014.

Modern, well-maintained highways are the key to economic progress, as Altoona and other parts of this county can attest.

All that said, news coming out of our nation’s capital about Washington’s inability to agree on highway and transit program funding is disconcerting – not only for Pennsylvania but for the other states, as well.

According to the Obama administration, states will begin to feel the adverse effects of cutbacks in federal aid beginning in early August if Congress fails to pass a funding plan. Meanwhile, the government’s authority to spend money on transportation programs will expire on Sept. 30, if a funding plan still is not in place on that date.

As reported in the July 2 Mirror, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx delivered the bad news in a letter to the states. As explained by Foxx, the funding constraints beginning next month, if Congress fails to act, will be necessary because the balance in the federal Highway Trust Fund will soon drop below $4 billion.

Federal officials say that’s the cushion needed for incoming fuel tax revenue to cover outgoing payments to states.

Foxx says the necessary cuts to the states will vary, but will average about 28 percent – a significant amount of money for even the smallest states. Without congressional action, it’s estimated that the trust fund’s balance will be zero by the end of August, triggering deeper cuts to the states’ highway efforts.

Of course, Congress could approve stopgap measures to head off what the states would appropriately refer to as a funding crisis. In a congressional election year, it’s hard to imagine Congress allowing such a crisis to prevail.

Nevertheless, Americans are justified in asking why this, like so many other issues, cannot be resolved until virtually the last minute. Inaction on the federal level causes delays on the state level.

The transportation funding issue is huge and complex, but Congress is tasked with rising above those obstacles.

A crisis must be averted. The good that has evolved here as a result of modern highways and the availability of mass transit should be an upbeat lesson to Congress and everyone else.