Agency cuts road, bridge allocations drastically

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A new long-range Transportation Improvement Program for southwestern Pennsylvania slashes spending on roads and bridges by 32 percent over the coming four years because of funding shortages and uncertainty.

The result, experts say, will be bumpier rides and the further decay of aging transportation infrastructure that already earns poor grades.

It also will mean fewer jobs in the construction and transportation engineering industries, which have been hit hard by the recession.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a 10-county regional planning agency, approved the plan on Monday. It identifies projects to be carried out over the four years beginning in October.

Spending on roads and bridges will decline by more than $880 million, from $2.68 billion to $1.8 billion, in the period covered by the plan, compared with the one currently in place, the commission reported.

"That's the reality of how bad the funding scenario is right now. It's a big hit for transportation in Western Pennsylvania," said Dan Cessna, district executive for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation in Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties.

"You're going to see less road and bridge projects improving critical infrastructure that needs to be rehabilitated," he said.

"It's disheartening to hear a 32 percent decrease," said Matt Pierce, president of the Pittsburgh section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. "Our infrastructure is old. It's aged. We have not kept up with it over the years."

The society released a report card for Pennsylvania infrastructure in May. It gave the state an overall grade of D-plus. Roads got a D-minus and bridges a C.

The group has called for adoption of a dedicated, stable, long-term funding source for transportation improvements, including possible increases in gasoline taxes and vehicle registration or license fees.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission updates the four-year spending plan every two years. The plan is mandated by federal law. The one currently in place covered October 2008 to October 2012. The new one runs to October 2014.

The commission is made up of representatives from Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

Rather than being a "wish list," the Transportation Improvement Program, or TIP, must be constrained to include only projects that are reasonably expected to be funded. Spending levels are based on guidance from the U.S. Department of Transportation and PennDOT.

The plan can change monthly based on shifting priorities, emergencies or funding changes.

Karen Franks, transportation planner for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, said several factors forced down the spending levels anticipated in the new plan.

The biggest was the federal government's rejection of Pennsylvania's plan to collect tolls on Interstate 80. That caused an immediate $472 million annual reduction in funding available for state highways, bridges and transit systems.

The new TIP shows a four-year, $335 million cut in funding for southwestern Pennsylvania from Act 44, the 2007 state law that called for using I-80 tolls and increased Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls to fund transportation.

Mr. Cessna said PennDOT, which already had shifted its focus from expansion projects to maintaining existing roads and bridges, will be unable to start anything new without additional funding. It will be hard-pressed to continue its progress on repairing hundreds of structurally deficient bridges in the region.

Gov. Ed Rendell has called for the Legislature to continue its special session on transportation next month and asked it to consider raising gasoline taxes and/or fees to offset the funding shortage. But many lawmakers are nervous about imposing new taxes or fees on the eve of the November elections.

Another factor reducing projected spending on roads and bridges is that federal economic stimulus funding that fueled several projects is running out. Mr. Cessna said stimulus-funded work will be mostly complete by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, Congress has failed to enact a long-term replacement for a transportation funding authorization law that expired in September. Instead, it has extended the existing law several times.

That leaves state transportation departments, which rely heavily on federal funding for road and bridge work, in doubt about their own long-range plans, Mr. Cessna said.

"There's been no indication at the federal level that they intend to increase transportation funding," he said.

In Washington, the problem is the same as in Harrisburg -- Congress is reluctant to raise taxes at a time of voter unrest and in a weak economy.

Highway and bridge programs have seen their buying power erode for more than a decade as their main funding sources have declined or stayed flat.

The state hasn't raised its gasoline tax for 13 years. Consumers still pay the same 32.3 cents they paid when gas sold for $1 per gallon. During the same time, construction prices have soared beyond the rate of inflation.

The federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents, a principal source of highway money that is channeled to states, hasn't been raised since 1992. Pennsylvania's fee for registering a vehicle, $36, hasn't increased since 1997.

Mr. Pierce, whose organization has warned about declining infrastructure nationwide for several years, said failure to maintain roads and bridges has a dual effect -- "they continue to deteriorate, and when you get around to finally fixing it, inflation kills you.

"The fact of the matter is we have to pay for what we use. We've been using what our past generations have given us for years, and we haven't been keeping it up," he said.

"All we're doing is pushing the problem off to our children," said Ms. Franks. "Worse roads, worse bridges, with no real answer in sight at this point."


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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