Gov. Tom Corbett has again urged state lawmakers to reach agreement on a transportation funding bill, and on Wednesday embraced a controversial proposal to relax the requirements for union-level prevailing wages on some construction projects.
At a news conference under the Birmingham Bridge on the South Side, Mr. Corbett said public safety and the state's economy will suffer if no action is taken to increase spending on roads, bridges, public transit and other transportation modes.
"It's a basic, core function of government since the founding of this country that we need to have a good transportation system. Here, we have an opportunity to forge a solution that will allow us to rebuild the roads and bridges here in Pennsylvania and at the same time support a mass transit system that gets people to and from places," he said.
"The stakes are huge if no action is taken. What is at stake, without a doubt, is the public safety of our families and the economic future of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."
House Republicans are seeking to lift the threshold at which prevailing wage requirements kick in on public projects, from the current $25,000 to $100,000. Any state-funded job costing less than $100,000 would not require union-level wages.
The threshold has not changed since 1961 and would be nearly $195,000 today had it been adjusted for inflation, Mr. Corbett said.
"Our goal ... is to help local governments who are responsible for 77,000 miles of roadway and have limited means to raise the resources that are needed to adequately take care of those miles of roads," he said. "It means an easing of the pressure on them to raise property taxes to pay for local road maintenance."
The change would have no significant impact on the $1.5 billion to $2 billion in contracts that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation awards annually, the governor said. Only a small fraction are for less than $100,000.
The proposed increase "is abundantly reasonable in my mind," Mr. Corbett said.
"I'm urging members of the General Assembly to approach this [transportation] issue in a true spirit of compromise that will bring that bill to my desk this year," he said.
So far, Democratic leaders have balked at the prevailing wage change. Some major unions have said they are OK with it, but others are opposed, worried it would clear the way for a broader assault on wage protection.
"Prevailing wages are still a big stumbling block," said Bill Patton, spokesman for House Democrats. While the impact on state projects would be minimal, it would affect a lot of work done by boroughs and townships that require union-level wages, he said.
"We feel it's an issue that should be considered separately," he said, noting that the Senate passed a transportation funding measure this year by 45-5 without changing the wage requirements.
Many House Republicans are squeamish about the $2.5 billion funding level of the Senate bill in an economy that "has not picked up that much," said Steve Miskin, their spokesman.
"In order to try to stretch the limited public dollars and to limit the local property tax increases, some modest prevailing wage changes are necessary," he said.
Mr. Corbett's news conference was under a bridge that nearly fell down, and he held up a concrete chunk that fell from another bridge that is in dire need of repairs.
A section of the Birmingham Bridge shifted and dropped eight 8 inches, landing on a concrete pier, in February 2008. A transportation funding bill would allow a $33 million rehabilitation project to move forward on the bridge, which was built in 1976 and is showing signs of rust, state Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said. The bridge carries 23,000 vehicles per day between the South Side and Oakland.
The concrete chunk brandished by the governor came from the Koppel Bridge in Beaver County, for which no rehabilitation funding is currently available. An upgrade to the bridge could begin as soon as 2015 if the Legislature passes a funding bill, Mr. Corbett said.
Dozens of civic and corporate leaders lined up behind the governor as he spoke, including representatives of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, Consol Energy, BNY Mellon, PPG Industries, Chevron, Kennametal Inc., the Laborers International Union, Constructors Association of Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh Foundation and United Way of Allegheny County.
“That’s representative of what happens each time we talk about transportation around the Commonwealth,” Mr. Schoch said.
The House has yet to vote on the Senate-passed bill, which would raise the tax on gasoline wholesalers, likely pushing up pump prices, and increase vehicle fees. It may do so when it returns to session Nov. 12 and 13.
Jon Schmitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1868. First Published October 30, 2013 3:52 PM