Pennsylvania will need to post weight restrictions on an estimated 1,500 bridges next year if the Legislature does not act this month to increase transportation funding, state Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch told lawmakers last week.
Speaking at a hearing of the Senate Transportation Committee in Monroeville, Mr. Schoch said PennDOT has taken a conservative approach to posting weight limits on aging bridges but will need to be more aggressive if inadequate funding for repairs continues. He said the average age of state bridges is 51 years.
At present, just under 600 state-owned bridges have weight restrictions that prevent heavier vehicles -- including emergency vehicles, trucks and buses -- from crossing them.
Weight limits are just one of several consequences of continued failure to adequately fund the state's transportation system, Mr. Schoch said. The state's ability to attract and retain businesses will suffer, public safety could be compromised and urban mass transit systems will face service cutbacks.
Most observers agree that June is a make-or-break month for enactment of a transportation funding bill. If the Legislature recesses without passing a bill, action is unlikely this year.
Mr. Schoch noted that transportation-related taxes and fees haven't been raised since 1997 and are not indexed to inflation, making it more and more difficult to maintain the system.
Senate Transportation Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, said he expects that chamber to vote on Senate Bill 1, which has broad bipartisan support, this week. It would increase the tax on gasoline wholesalers, possibly leading to a rise in pump prices, and raise most vehicle fees to match the inflation that has occurred since 1997. The measure also would increase fines for traffic violations.
Fully implemented, the changes would cost a typical driver about $3 per week.
Action in the House is less certain, with lawmakers acknowledging that funding mass transit is a difficult sell to rural lawmakers.
But Mr. Schoch said "the entire system works as a system. Mass transit is as important as the roadway network. Could you imagine what would happen if we didn't have the Port Authority, the backups that would occur on the parkways?
"Every mass transit system in the world is subsidized. Roads in rural areas are clearly heavily subsidized. We need all these systems to support the needs of all Pennsylvanians. The dialogue, I think, has been unfortunate."
Mr. Rafferty, sponsor of S.B. 1, said it would provide not only for repairs and resurfacing of roads and highways but allow for expansion projects to reduce congestion. "It's a tough vote for us," he said. "Pennsylvania is ranked 35th in infrastructure among the 50 states. That's a tell-all sign that we have to do something."
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said adequate funding for mass transit is vital to job growth and the regional economy. He cited as an example that 56 percent of BNY Mellon's local workforce commutes via transit. An agreement last year that averted a 35 percent service cut through union concessions and increased state and local funding was a factor in the company's decision to add jobs here, he said.
"The region grew 10,600 jobs in the last year. We need transit to keep that momentum going," Mr. Fitzgerald said. Companies seeking to locate here want predictability and stability in the transit system and legislative failure to act "puts uncertainty back into the system. We want a 10-year plan that people can feel confident in."
Mr. Schoch, who is scheduled to address the opening session of the International Bridge Conference in Pittsburgh today, said he was confident that lawmakers would find "the sweet spot" between Senate Bill 1 and a proposal by Gov. Tom Corbett that would raise the wholesale gasoline tax but not vehicle fees.
"We need to get it done by June 30," he said.