Cuts in transportation funding mean worse Pennsylvania roads, bridges
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Pennsylvanians, including those in the Pittsburgh region, should anticipate bumpier roads and deteriorating bridges in the coming years because of transportation funding cuts at the federal and state levels.
The latest update of the state's 12-year transportation plan calls for $41.6 billion in spending, which is down $26.3 billion, or nearly 40 percent, from the plan adopted four years ago.
In the 10-county southwestern Pennsylvania region, a four-year spending plan that takes effect in October anticipates a 32 percent reduction for highways and bridges compared with the plan adopted in 2008.
What it means at the state and regional levels is a reversal of progress in reducing the large backlog of structurally deficient bridges and a sharp increase in road mileage rated "poor" under international roughness standards, officials said.
"We'll be losing ground on bridges and losing ground on pavement," state Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said.
State and regional transportation departments will pour all of the available money into maintaining existing infrastructure, with virtually no capacity-adding projects planned, he said.
"Everyone around the state who's sitting in traffic can expect to continue sitting in traffic. We can't do anything about it," Mr. Schoch said.
"What we're going to see is a decline in the number of construction projects," said Dan Cessna, PennDOT district executive for Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties. "In the short term that might make motorists happy," but in the long term it may lead to closed bridges and more potholes.
Several factors are putting the squeeze on transportation spending. A new, two-year federal authorization bill approved by Congress this year cut Pennsylvania's annual allocation by $111 million. The money provided by the 2009 federal economic stimulus bill has largely been spent. The state's accelerated bridge program, which provided $200 million per year for three years from bond funds, has expired, but debt on the bonds remains.
Act 44, a 2007 state law that was to serve as the foundation for adequate long-term transportation spending, was upended by the Federal Highway Administration's rejection of tolling of Interstate 80. And higher fuel mileage standards are eating away at federal and state gasoline tax revenues, the principal source of transportation funding.
Pennsylvania has reduced the number of structurally deficient state-owned bridges from 6,300 to 4,700 in recent years but still leads the nation in that category. The downward trend "will start to reverse if we don't see a change in funding," Mr. Schoch said.
The same will be true in District 11 -- comprising Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties -- where the number of state-owned structurally deficient bridges has been reduced from 600 to just over 400, Mr. Cessna said. The four-year plan adopted in 2008 called for $801 million in bridge spending; the update taking effect in October has $457 million, a 43 percent reduction.
"Unfortunately, moving forward we likely will have to close some bridges, given the funding," he said during an appearance on "KD/PG Sunday Morning."
Structurally deficient bridges have at least one major component -- the superstructure, substructure or deck -- that is showing signs of deterioration. The designation does not mean the bridge is unsafe; but that if repairs aren't made, it could eventually lead to weight restrictions or closure.
The recent emphasis on repairing bridges already has led to a decline in road quality across the state. The percentage of state-owned road mileage rated "poor" grew from 16 percent to 21 percent and is projected to rise to 40 percent by 2016 without increased funding, Mr. Schoch said.
While the interstate highway system in the district is in good condition, "there's no doubt that our secondary system is getting significantly worse," Mr. Cessna said.
Statewide, much of the interstate system needs to be rebuilt "from the ground up" rather than getting pavement overlays that are "like putting paint on bad wood," Mr. Schoch said.
A commission appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett and headed by Mr. Schoch made recommendations in August 2011 for generating up to $2.5 billion in new annual transportation revenue through increased vehicle fees and lifting an artificial cap on the tax paid by fuel wholesalers. Mr. Corbett has not embraced the recommendations, and the Legislature is not expected to act on them until next year at the earliest.
Mr. Schoch said another key to generating new revenue would be for the federal government to give states permission to impose tolls on existing interstate highways that are in need of major repairs. The new transportation bill authorized tolling only of newly constructed highway lanes.
The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a planning organization for the 10-county region that adopts the four-year transportation spending plans, recently approved a resolution supporting the funding recommendations of the governor's commission.
Without additional funding, "the backlog of deficient highways and bridges will continue to grow, vehicle repair costs will be higher, highway safety will be compromised, economic competitiveness will decline, and costs to maintain and repair the transportation system will grow," it said.
First Published August 20, 2012 12:00 am