Panel: How to do more on roads
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One brief section in a 69-page report delivered Monday to Gov. Tom Corbett might best illustrate the choices faced by Pennsylvanians when it comes to transportation funding:
New pavement or tar-and-chips?
More bridges fixed or more bridges closed?
Wider, safer roads or bumpier ones?
The governor's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, 40 professionals from the public and private sectors who volunteered their time, unanimously agreed on the smoother options.
To pay for them, the commission has recommended changes that would require drivers to pay a few cents more for a gallon of gasoline and higher registration, license and other vehicle-related fees.
The commission approved and made public its funding recommendations last month, designed to raise $2.7 billion in new annual transportation revenue. Its final report to Mr. Corbett, delivered Monday, added a section outlining the consequences of doing nothing.
Tar-and-chip resurfacing, almost universally loathed by drivers, would increase from the current 3,300 miles per year to 4,600, while more costly asphalt paving would decrease.
If the new funding proposals were implemented, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation could improve 375 to 425 bridges per year; without any action, the number would fall from the current 320 bridges per year to as few as 175.
In recent years, funding constraints have forced PennDOT to focus on maintenance and put off projects to add traffic capacity. That would continue without more funding, the panel said.
Aging infrastructure including rail bridges, rail cars and buses would continue to deteriorate, causing less reliable and frequent public transit service.
By contrast, the commission said, adopting its recommendations would usher in a "decade of investment" that would include expanded highways and more widespread use of intelligent transportation systems like traffic cameras and message boards to provide real-time information to motorists; continued progress in reducing the state's inventory of deficient bridges; and improvements to transit such as greater use of alternative-fueled vehicles that reduce pollution and save cash.
It also would create the equivalent of 135,000 to 145,000 full-time jobs over the next decade, the commission said.
"Waiting will make it worse and only adds to the cost for future generations. We cannot allow transportation to deteriorate ... [so that] recovery is even more costly," the panel said.
In a cover letter with the report, Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch, who chaired the panel, said: "There is no magic wand that can eliminate the challenges that lie ahead in building better roads and bridges and keeping our transportation system safe and efficient. This report is a good starting point in developing responsible ways to fund our roads and bridges, public transit, aviation, rail and ports."
Kelli Roberts, Mr. Corbett's spokeswoman, said the governor would "take as much time as he needs to fully review the report" before deciding how to proceed. No timetable for action has been established.
The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors on Monday declared its support for the commission's recommendations, pleased that $400 million per year would be added for local transportation projects.
"This state-appointed group did some things that others before it haven't: It recognized the vital role that local roads and bridges play in Pennsylvania's transportation system; it listened to local government; it treated municipalities as partners; and it responded with a doable, long-term solution that is going to put the commonwealth's transportation system back on the road to recovery," executive director David M. Sanko said.
The American Council of Engineering Companies of Pennsylvania said the commission deserves credit for "providing a blueprint for financing the daunting infrastructure needs in Pennsylvania."
"This report delivers a true comprehensive funding plan that will enhance our safety, bolster our economy and improve our overall quality of life," said the group's executive vice president, Eric G. Madden.
Among its major recommendations, the commission called for lifting a cap on the Oil Company Franchise Tax, which is paid by fuel distributors. Currently, the tax applies to only a maximum of $1.25 per gallon of the wholesale price.
Without the cap in place, the current per-gallon tax would be 13.8 cents higher for gasoline and 18.7 cents higher for diesel. The plan phases out the cap over five years. Some or all of the increase could be passed along to drivers at the pump.
The annual fee for vehicle registration hasn't been raised since 1997. Adjusting it for inflation that has occurred since then would take it from the current $36 per year to $49. A similar adjustment in the cost of renewing a driver's license would move it from the current $29.50 for four years to $34.50.
In addition to the inflation adjustment, the commission proposed a $10 registration fee increase, with the money it generates -- $110 million -- going to local projects.
The panel also proposed several cost-saving measures.
Owners would register their cars every two years instead of annually, and those tiny license plate stickers would be eliminated to save money and allow for online renewals.
Driver's license renewals would be every eight years rather than every four, and private companies would be authorized to administer tests to new drivers.
Stretching out the time between registration and driver's license renewals would increase convenience for drivers while saving the state $5.5 million on reduced paperwork, the commission estimated.
The panel also called for increased fines for some traffic offenses and deployment of red light enforcement cameras, which are legal only in Philadelphia.
Mr. Corbett appointed the commission of 40 volunteers from all sectors of the transportation industry to address an estimated $3.5 billion annual shortfall in funding needed to maintain the state's infrastructure and transit systems.
A typical motorist would pay $36 more in the first year and $132 more by the fifth year, if all elements of the proposal were implemented.
The full report can be viewed at www.tfac.pa.gov.
First Published August 2, 2011 12:00 am