Gov. Corbett to roll out transportation plan by Feb. 7

Officials warn of dire consequences for roads, bridges

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Gov. Tom Corbett will unveil his much-awaited plan for dealing with the state's transportation funding shortfall in his budget message Feb. 7 or sooner, a top appointee said Wednesday.

The proposal is likely to fall short of the recommendations of the governor's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, which presented a plan in August to raise up to $2.5 billion in new annual revenue for roads, bridges and public transit.

Testifying at a hearing of the House Democratic Policy Committee at Point Park University, state Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said Mr. Corbett "recognizes the need to make investment in transportation" but also said "the economy's very fragile now."

In a recent interview, Mr. Schoch said the governor was considering rejiggering the retail and wholesale gasoline taxes to produce a revenue stream that grows over time, but was unlikely to embrace the commission's proposals to raise registration and license fees for the first time since 1997 to catch them up with inflation.

The governor's plan also may include borrowing, but only if fully financed by a new revenue stream, he said.

Other witnesses, including an array of local civic and business leaders, warned of dire consequences for roads, bridges, transit and the economy if the governor and Legislature don't act soon.

Dan Cessna -- district executive for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties -- said inadequate funding, construction inflation and the age of pavements have caused road quality to deteriorate, with nearly a quarter of the overall system classified as "poor." The district went from 553 poor roadway miles in 2009 to 651 in 2010.

Construction spending will be off significantly this year, he said. The district bid 83 projects worth $334 million last year, but it expects to bid 79 valued at $224 million this year.

Although progress has been made on deficient bridges, "we are still way above the national average," Mr. Cessna said.

Last spring's wet weather caused 24 severe landslides, only 10 of which have been corrected using $10.7 million that was shifted from other projects, he said. Repairs are planned for eight more, but no funding exists for the others.

Port Authority CEO Steve Bland said his board of directors next week will announce details of a 35 percent service reduction that would eliminate 40 of the current 102 routes, strand 20,000 riders and cause layoffs of 500 to 600 transit workers. Public hearings will follow in March, and the board would vote in April to adopt the cuts, which would take effect in September.

Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, said more than 60 percent of the employees at big Downtown employers Highmark and BNY Mellon, and 54 percent of the entire Downtown work force, use transit.

"In this time of great economic uncertainty, adding additional financial burdens to our workers or further employment uncertainty for both workers and employers is not good policy. This is in addition to the serious traffic congestion, parking problems and increased pollution that would be created Downtown," he said.

"Robust public transit is one of the things that makes the city of Pittsburgh an attractive place to live, work [and] invest, which helps keep the entire regional economy humming," said Ken Zapinski, a senior vice president with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

Pennsylvania "will be left on the competitive curb" without viable public transportation, said Mariann Geyer, vice president at Point Park University.

"A cut of this magnitude will be disastrous for Downtown and Oakland, Pennsylvania's second- and third-largest economic engines," said Chris Sandvig, regional policy manager for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. "We may lose major employers because of this."

A frequent rider, Mr. Sandvig said many people's notion that public transit is a form of welfare is mistaken. "I see who is on the bus, and it is everybody. Lawyers and accountants sit next to baristas and janitors," he said.

The Democratic lawmakers on the panel echoed the witnesses' calls for action, noting that legislators from both parties have submitted legislation that adopts the revenue-raising suggestions of the governor's commission.

The commission estimated that a typical driver would pay an extra 70 cents a week in the first year and $2.50 a week by the fifth year of its plan.

"We're witnessing the cannibalization of the Port Authority within the next year unless something is done," said Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill.

"There clearly seems to be a bipartisan group of legislators who believe the time is now to do this," he said. "There seems to be a high level of timidity within the [Corbett] administration. ... We're absolutely allowing our infrastructure to decay, to decompose. How are we going to be economically viable?"

Outside the hearing, a small group of demonstrators gathered on Wood Street, holding signs urging action.

"It's an issue that's not only about jobs. It's about public safety. It's also common sense," said Dave Ninehouser of Fineview, local coordinator of the AFL-CIO's PA Wants to Work campaign.

Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at . Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published January 12, 2012 5:00 AM


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