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Structurally deficient

Lack of funding causing state-owned bridges, highways to fall into disarray

March 30, 2008
By Phil Ray and Jessica VanderKolk,,
The chief executive of PennDOT’s Hollidaysburg district says the 4,000 miles of roads and 2,084 bridges in his six-county area ‘‘are not in good shape.’’

Thomas A. Prestash says 470 of 2,084 bridges are ‘‘structurally deficient,’’ and the average age of bridges in Blair, Cambria, Huntingdon, Bedford, Somerset and Fulton counties is 54. The ‘‘useful life’’ of a bridge is 50 years.

A nationwide ‘‘roughness index’’ applied to district highways concluded that 20 percent to 25 percent of the 3,827 miles of state-owned highways are in poor condition.

The Hollidaysburg district operates on $215 million annually. Prestash says it needs an additional $25 million to upgrade bridges and $80 million for highways.

The issue is the same across Pennsylvania.

In 2005, the state ranked 36th nationwide for highway system performance, according to the annual Reason Foundation report. With the nation’s fourth most highway miles under state control, Pennsylvania ranks 49th in deficient bridges and 32nd in rural interstates in poor condition.

The additional money needed locally is part of a $1.7 billion annual need statewide and reflects a conclusion by the Pennsylvania Transportation Funding and Reform Commission.

The commission’s 15-month-old report stated that Pennsylvania’s ‘‘public transportation and highway and bridge systems are in crisis.”

The commission suggested raising additional money with an increase in the Oil Company Franchise Tax, a tax on the wholesale price of gasoline — the equivalent of 11.5 cents at the pump — and increasing vehicle and license fees.

The commission also offered alternatives to further taxation — leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike or tolling Interstate 80.

The discussion of raising more cash for roads is a complicated one filled with various motives. A lease brings quick cash but surrenders a state asset for decades and possibly costs more in the long term.

Tolls bring in money but could alienate the very business that good roads are supposed to attract. Few lawmakers support higher prices at the pump for anything.

‘‘You can’t do it at the pump. You can’t do it with registration fees,’’ said state Rep. Rick Geist, R-Altoona.

Geist, minority chairman of the House Transportation Committee, favors Gov. Ed Rendell’s plan to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Geist envisions the turnpike lease immediately bringing in about $30 billion. The interest alone would provide an additional $1 billion annually for highway maintenance, bridges and new construction.

With an eye on what some of that money could do for his district, Geist sees the Altoona area in the middle of a giant economic development grid open to warehousing, final assembly and distribution businesses.

Geist talks about constructing a Northern Access Route in Altoona, linking the Juniata area and Chestnut Avenue to Interstate 99 at Pinecroft.

He also favors constructing a cross-city expressway to bring development downtown, with those roads providing access to an intermodal transportation center and business development area on Norfolk Southern Corp. property north of the Eighth Street Bridge in Juniata.

But all of those plans only are talk without money.

In regard to the wider view, Interstate 78, linking Harrisburg to the Allentown area, is overloaded with traffic and needs to be rebuilt.

Money is needed to rebuild the Schuylkill Expressway leading to Philadelphia. The list of needs seemingly can go on forever, and Geist said major funding is provided best with public-private partnerships for infrastructure across the state.

Geist has introduced legislation allowing public-private partnerships twice in as many years, which has waited for a Transportation Committee vote since March. Pending Senate legislation addresses only a turnpike public-private partnership, called P3 by the highway industry.

‘‘You really need to get a sound P3 law in place, and that’s going to do a lot to drive how much revenue the state can get off of this,’’ Geist said.

The money Geist seeks to lease the turnpike apparently is available.

Rendell received 14 responses after seeking interested parties last fall. Investment firms, companies and consortiums provided their financial standings and details of other projects.

Many of the companies have ties to Spain and other European countries, where private investments in toll roads have occurred for decades.

Not a ‘slam dunk’

William Ward Jr., president of Altoona’s Ward Trucking Co., with a fleet of more than 600, says he’s concerned about a rate increase that would force truckers onto secondary roads like Route 22.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission already plans to increase toll rates 25 percent in 2009 and 3 percent each year after.

Retired Allegheny Township trucker Lyle Millard drove the turnpike often, but in the late 1990s, his companies diverted him to free roads.

‘‘The turnpike is expensive,’’ Millard says. ‘‘The costs involved in moving freight have gotten out of hand.’’

At some point, Ward says the costs might force current and potential employers to construct facilities in neighboring states.

Others say the alternatives to traditional taxes aren’t a ‘‘slam dunk’’ answer.

U.S. Rep. John Peterson, R-5th District, whose area includes six I-80 states, has spoken out against I-80 tolls.

Peterson says tolls would add hundreds of thousands of dollars to expenses incurred by businesses near the highway.

Mark McCracken, recently re-elected as Clearfield County commissioner, says his county benefits from a toll-free I-80. A major Wal-Mart Distribution Center in Clearfield provides more than 1,000 local jobs.

McCracken says the I-80 location attracted an ethanol plant, which is under construction, and the interstate is a bargaining asset in recruiting a firm moving its assembly operation to the U.S. from Mexico.

He worries that tolls will set Clearfield’s economic development efforts back decades. He also mentioned the unmentionable: that Wal-Mart might seek another location for its giant warehouse if tolls are imposed.

Peterson worries that other companies will do the same and says one is awaiting the federal government’s final decision on allowing I-80 tolls before expanding into Pennsylvania.

‘Complex questions’

Former state House Majority Leader Sam Hayes Jr. of Warriors Mark designed the billion-dollar funding bills for roads and bridges that have allowed Pennsylvania to maintain its infrastructure for the past 27 years.

Hayes says adding higher taxes on oil companies is ‘‘not a throw-away option.’’

‘‘Every option has a disadvantage,’’ he said.

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, disagrees that Pennsylvania’s infrastructure faces a ‘‘crisis’’ now but says it will reach that stage within a few years.

‘‘It’s nice to say, ‘I don’t want to pay more taxes, I don’t want tolling, I don’t want to see public-private partnerships,’’’ Shuster said. ‘‘Take those away, and we don’t have anything for funding.’’

While Shuster says there are flaws in both funding options, he doesn’t support a gas tax increase.

Pennsylvania’s gas tax ranks 11th highest, according to a January listing by API, the U.S. oil and natural gas industry trade association. Including the federal tax and retailer fee, the state’s tax hits 50.7 cents a gallon, above the nation’s 47-cent average. The state tax alone is 31.2 cents.

Total state taxes range from 8 cents in Alaska to 45.5 cents in California. The federal gasoline tax is 18.4 cents.

‘‘It’s time we face the responsibilities of citizenship,’’ Penn State University law professor Ellen Dannin said. ‘‘I’m not thrilled to pay taxes. On the other hand, I look around and see the important things taxes pay for.’’

Pennsylvania’s tax contributes to the Motor License Fund, which provides for highway and bridge improvements across the state and partially funds state police.

Until the funding

question is resolved

Prestash says his department continues to concentrate on maintenance of roads that include I-99 and routes 22 and 219 as the funding debate continues.

It is business as usual these days on Pennsylvania’s east-west corridors. The Sapp Bros. Truck Stop, off exit 120 to Clearfield and Shawville, has offered services to truckers since the 1970s. There are plenty of challenges there already with gas prices, general manager Tanya Clark said.

“It’s definitely going to affect our business with fuel prices and when you add in the toll,” she said. “We’ve had truckers already say they’d use a different route.”

Few discuss the topic of a private toll road on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Breezewood these days, as the debate still seems fairly remote. The possibility does raise a reaction, though.

John Bittner, general manager of the Gateway Restaurant and Travel Plaza, said private operation of the turnpike will mean higher tolls.

“Anything that is going to increase the tolls is bad for business,” Bittner said.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray

is at 946-7468. Mirror Staff Writer Jessica VanderKolk is at 946-7465.

Article Photos

(Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski)
Pennsylvania ranks 49th in deficient bridges and 32nd in rural interstates in poor condition, with the nation’s fourth most highway miles under state control.

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