Turnpike association praises Pa.'s Act 89 plan

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WASHINGTON -- Pennsylvania transportation leaders say they can't count on the federal government for enough transportation funding, or even for permission to toll highways, so the state is relying on its own ingenuity and political wherewithal to maintain its infrastructure.

During a conference Monday, the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association held up Pennsylvania as an example of a state that's doing things right. Organizers invited Brad Mallory, the Corbett administration's deputy secretary for transportation, to join a panel of transportation leaders from across the country.

The panel was introduced by another Pennsylvanian, Turnpike Commission CEO Mark Compton.

"These folks have decided not to wait until Washington helps out, so what they've done is on their own, [without] the assistance of the feds," Mr. Compton said.

Mr. Mallory was invited to tell transportation stakeholders about Act 89, the transportation spending plan that was passed by the state Legislature in November.

The gas tax was restructured by removing a cap, a revision that effectively added 9.5 cents per gallon this year. Over five years, the changes could add 28.5 cents or more in taxes to the per-gallon price.

The act also increased vehicle-related fees and fines for traffic violations while it provided increased funding for bridge maintenance, mass transit, road repairs and other infrastructure improvements.

"We got this package through. It wasn't easy at all," he said. "The hard truth is it shouldn't be easy. If you're going to raise taxes, it ought to be fiendishly difficult. You ought to have to prove your case ... and you better spend the money on what you told people you were going to spend it on."

He said passage required buy-in from all kinds of stakeholders -- everyone from bicyclists, the American Heart Association and farmers, said Mr. Mallory, a former PennDOT secretary.

He credited former Gov. Ed Rendell -- who is to speak at the conference today -- with prioritizing bridge repairs, but said that has come at the expense of other transportation needs.

"It was a practical and responsible thing to do" in a state with 25,000 bridges, Mr. Mallory said, but it meant "essentially neglecting our pavement."

Act 89 provides a dependable stream of funding that addresses multiple needs and allows for increased intermodal planning, Mr. Compton said.

Pennsylvania's solution won't work for every state, but it can be a model, IBTAA Executive Director Patrick Jones said after the session.

"They did move through the Legislature a significant transportation funding package, so that's an example of a good state solution," Mr. Jones said. "There are lots of different ways to skin this cat -- to find better, more effective solutions to providing transportation funding."

In an earlier interview, Mr. Compton said that he is optimistic, a year after taking over as chief executive of the turnpike commission.

The financial outlook is more stable, agency morale is rebounding after a corruption probe snared top officials, and progress toward all-electronic tolling is moving steadily, if not as quickly as expected.

On Sunday, he met with other turnpike executives from across the country to discuss how they will implement a federal mandate to integrate all the nation's electronic tolling systems.

That integration is on track to meet Congress' September 2016 deadline. However, Pennsylvania is likely to miss another target -- a self-imposed one to transition to all-electronic tolling by 2018.

"We're working on a establishing a new timeline," Mr. Compton said. He said the technology is there, but legislative authorization isn't. State lawmakers are concerned about the 800 toll collectors and auditors whose jobs would no longer exist.

They are reluctant to kill those jobs, even though doing so would save an estimated $60 million a year.

Mr. Compton is concerned for them, too. He said that's why he's developing a plan to help them transition to new jobs either as replacements for retiring turnpike maintenance workers or perhaps at other state agencies. Their retail-type skills as toll-takers would translate well into jobs processing car registrations and license renewals at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, he said.

IBTTA's conference continues this afternoon.

Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets. First Published March 10, 2014 2:19 PM

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