Pennsylvania's roads barely passing

Report gives transit, roads a D-minus, bridges a C

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Pennsylvania has the nation's largest inventory of structurally deficient bridges -- 6,060 as of December, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

But bridges turn out to be the crown jewel, relatively speaking, in the state's deteriorating transportation network, according to a report card to be released today by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

It gives the state's roads and mass transit systems the same dismal grade: D-minus. Pennsylvania's bridges got a grade of C.

That is actually a step back for the state's overall transportation infrastructure from the ASCE's previous Pennsylvania report card, issued in 2006, which said "the Keystone State is crumbling." That report gave roads a D, bridges a C and transit a D-plus.

The report card comes at a time of looming drastic cuts in state spending on roads, bridges and transit, unless the Legislature comes up with an alternative to the $472 million for the coming fiscal year that was expected to be financed with Interstate 80 tolls.

The Federal Highway Administration in April rejected the state's request to toll I-80. That left a gaping hole in the funding scheme of Act 44, which the Legislature passed in 2007 to solve the state's chronic transportation funding shortages.

"Not only have many areas of our state's infrastructure been critically underfunded for decades, threatening our economy and quality of life, but we are currently facing a major crisis in funding roads, transit and other parts of our transportation system," said Greg Scott, ASCE Region 2 governor.

Amid the crisis, the House Transportation Committee has scheduled statewide public hearings to gather input on possible solutions. One will be held at 11 a.m. June 18 at Gateway High School in Monroeville.

The ASCE, representing 139,000 civil engineers worldwide, issued grades to Pennsylvania in 12 categories in its "2010 Report Card for Pennsylvania's Infrastructure."

Other grades were parks and recreation, B-minus; solid waste, C; dams and levees, C-minus; rail, B; storm water, D-minus; drinking water, D-plus; navigable waterways, D-plus; schools, B-minus; and wastewater, D-plus. The state's overall grade was D-plus.

Mr. Scott said water infrastructure is the second most pressing problem after transportation.

"We are reaching the point where the investments of the past have run out. Many parts of the water systems in cities and towns statewide are a century or more old, and major water main breaks are common."

Roads -- D-minus

Based on the International Roughness Index, 38 percent of the state's roads are in fair or poor condition. Pennsylvania ranks fifth in the nation for miles of state-owned highways, and truck traffic on interstate highways in the state is double the national average.

"Simply keeping the road system from degrading, let alone improving it, requires more than is currently available in the budget," the report said.

While the economic slump reduced travel on the state's highways, demand and congestion are "predicted to rise greatly in the near future," it said.

PennDOT has shifted its focus from building new capacity to maintaining what it already has. Only about 5 percent of its budget goes to capacity-increasing projects, down from 20 percent.

In addition to the uncertainty over state funding, Congress has not replaced the federal surface transportation law that expired in August, instead passing extensions that provide no growth in aid to states.

The state did get a one-time boost from the stimulus law, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided about $1.5 billion for road, bridge and transit projects.

The loss of I-80 as a revenue source already has put the brakes on 20 major projects and Gov. Ed Rendell has called a special session of the Legislature to tackle the shortfall.

"Other sources of funding that have been discussed are increases to registration and licensing fees and an increase to the [state motor fuel tax]," the ASCE said. "Recent proposals for gas tax increases have not been able to garner enough political support to become a reality. Until another major source of funding is agreed upon, however, the state's ability to maintain the existing roadway system will be severely affected."

Transit -- D-minus

The Governor's Transportation Funding and Reform Commission reported in 2006 that revenue shortfalls were chronic for transit agencies across the state and were exacerbated by growth in fuel and health care costs. Another layer of woe came with the collapse of financial markets, which seriously eroded the agencies' pension funds.

"In the past, the overall financial underpinning of the commonwealth's transit program was weak and the program structure was dysfunctional," the ASCE said. "Unless a long-term funding solution is found, transit system users throughout the state will face significant service reductions, fare increases and reduced mobility, including senior citizens and persons with disabilities."

The service reductions "will contribute to more cars on our already overburdened roads, more impact on the environment, and more gallons of gas consumed," Mr. Scott said.

Bridges -- C

Twenty-seven percent of the state's bridges are structurally deficient, compared with 12 percent nationwide.

The report said Pennsylvania's percentage is higher in part because of winter weather and the fact that the bridges are older, with the average age being 50.

It credited PennDOT with keeping the problem from getting worse with its Accelerated Bridge Program, begun in 2008. The number of bridges bid out for construction work rose from 225 in 2007 to 540 in fiscal 2008-09, and Pennsylvania devoted $390 million of its $1 billion in federal stimulus funding to bridge work.

"Without PennDOT's recent bridge program emphasis, the numbers would be significantly worse," the ASCE said.

It said there is $11 billion in "immediately needed" bridge repairs and urged the state to set a goal of reaching the national average of deficient bridges by 2033. It warned that inadequate funding would reverse the recent progress.

The ASCE report follows another this month by a state advisory panel that said Pennsylvania's transportation system "is in a state of crisis" and will require $3.5 billion a year to catch up.

"It is becoming increasingly difficult for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, transit agencies and local governments to maintain, improve and provide the infrastructure and services to meet Pennsylvania's mobility needs," said Louis C. Schultz Jr., chairman of a task force of the Pennsylvania State Transportation Advisory Committee.

The ASCE report card can be viewed at www.pareportcard.org.


Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com.


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