Transportation in Pennsylvania is more important than politics

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Pennsylvania's roads, bridges and public transportation systems are in trouble -- and ordinary citizens could soon face the consequences of the General Assembly's decision to put politics above public policy.

Motorists from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh might find bridges weight-posted, meaning detours and clogged alternate routes.

Commuters in every city with a mass transit system could face curtailed service and crowded buses and light-rail cars.

And construction workers could face layoffs numbering more than 12,000 -- when we instead could have hoped for as many as 50,000 new jobs as a result of new road building, bridge repair and sustained public transportation funding.

The General Assembly failed to come together on a sound, well-debated bill to end a chronic shortfall in funding for our roads, bridges and public transportation. It was a bill sought by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Unfortunately, the transportation bill became hostage to the debate over liquor-store privatization, and public-sector unions pressed their Democratic allies to back off.

An email from one state store union summed up the strategy:

"Privatization is now being tied to transportation funding currently being deliberated by the House. Call your House representative, Republican or Democrat, and tell them to vote NO to transportation until the Senate pulls the plug on privatization of the state stores."

And so, a bill that everybody knows is needed -- and needed sooner rather than later -- died in a haze of special-interest lobbying.

This is wrong. It's senseless. And it's scary.

Just think about this: More than 4,000 bridges across Pennsylvania have been declared structurally deficient, meaning they will soon be unable to safely carry the volume and weight of traffic that flows across them.

One of them is the Liberty Bridge, which ties Pittsburgh's South Hills to Downtown. This spring, I attended a press conference under that bridge, warning that it was in danger of being weight-posted -- something that could set off a chain reaction as heavy trucks clog alternative routes and add wear to other bridges, hastening the day they also will be too worn for travel.

Add to this mix the fact that the hard-won contract between the Port Authority and its drivers is contingent on a steady stream of state funding. That money was supposed to come from the new transportation bill. Without it, the contract between the Port Authority and its drivers could become null and void, setting the stage for the service cuts and layoffs we avoided when the unions agreed to new contract terms in 2012.

Motorists and taxpayers have one last chance to prevent this chaos.

The House and Senate will reconvene in the fall and, if enough pressure is applied, take up the transportation funding bill. It is not dead -- yet.

The only way to keep the bill alive and turn it into law is for people from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia to get on the telephone with their legislators and tell them:

• We want better roads.

• We want safe bridges.

• We want public transportation.

• And we want to save 12,000 construction jobs and to add the tens of thousands of new jobs this bill would help to create.

When it comes to keeping roads smooth, bridges safe, traffic moving and construction workers employed, the merits of the transportation bill are unmistakable. Legislators need to hear that from the voters, and they need to hear it as soon -- and as often -- as possible.

They need to hear that this is bigger than politics.

Transportation - opinion_commentary

Barry Schoch is Pennsylvania secretary of transportation (www.dot.state.pa.us).


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