PennDOT website tries to sell public on its efforts
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Before drivers are asked to contribute more money to fund transportation programs, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation wants them to know about its efforts to stretch every buck.
It has created a Web page called Modern PennDOT to describe nearly 50 initiatives completed or under way to make the department more receptive to businesses and consumers and more efficient. The page also is accessible from the department's home page.
"You are the shareholders of PennDOT," Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch told a Pittsburgh gathering last week. "You have to decide whether we're worthy of additional investment."
Mr. Schoch said Gov. Tom Corbett will present a plan early next year for raising new revenue to finance improvements to the state's deteriorating roads and bridges, help ailing public transit systems and upgrade other transportation modes.
He would not discuss details but said the plan would draw from recommendations made last year by the governor's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission. It called for lifting a cap on the gasoline tax paid by wholesalers and increases in registration and license fees, which haven't gone up since 1997.
Part of the commission's report centered on making money by saving it -- for instance, by switching to registration renewals every two years instead of every year, PennDOT would save $5 million. That change, expected to be part of Mr. Corbett's proposal, would require legislative approval.
Other initiatives don't require the Legislature's blessing, including studies of consolidating many of the regional public transportation providers across the state.
Mr. Schoch said pilot projects are under way in three counties to try "bundling" bridge rehabilitation projects. If several bridges of similar design and length need to be upgraded, they will be combined into one project to save on design and construction costs.
Where currently PennDOT splits the cost of repairing county-owned bridges on an 80-20 basis with the counties, bundling projects will allow the state to eliminate the county match and still save money, he said.
PennDOT will offer its expertise to municipalities to upgrade traffic signals, "a really easy, quick fix that'll save a lot of tax dollars and wasted fuel," he said.
Highway occupancy permits sought by developers were taking an average of 63 days to process. "We were a black hole," Mr. Schoch said. A new e-permit process was developed and brought down the average wait to 15 days.
PennDOT and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission expect to save millions by sharing services, materials and equipment.
Mr. Schoch said he favors legislation giving local governments new options for taxes and fees to fund transportation improvements.
Other changes are on the table that could save money for PennDOT and for consumers, including elimination of the inspection requirement for vehicles less than a year old, which would save drivers an estimated $24 million a year. Driver's licenses would be renewed every eight years instead of every four and the tiny license plate stickers sent out with registration cards would be eliminated, saving the department $1 million a year.
Mr. Schoch also wants the department to start considering the implications of self-driving vehicles and said PennDOT is joining with Carnegie Mellon University on a study of how they would effect highway design and construction.
"I have 18-month-old twins. They might not ever drive a car," he said in his remarks to the 12th annual Southwestern Pennsylvania Smart Growth Conference. "I think autonomous vehicles are going to happen, and I think PennDOT should embrace that. This is the future of transportation. We need to do the research today."
Among other topics he addressed:
• Despite Congress doing away with a requirement that 3 percent of federal transportation funding be spent on "enhancements" including bike and pedestrian trails, Pennsylvania will not cut funding of those items. "Bicycles are an important part of transportation and recreation," Mr. Schoch said.
• It is possible that a new state law authorizing public-private partnerships to fund transportation projects could jump-start the Southern Beltway project, which would connect Pittsburgh International Airport with the Mon-Fayette Expressway in Washington County. It also could help to build another long-planned leg of the Mon-Fay, from Jefferson Hills to Monroeville. But an expressway leg planned toward Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood "is not doable," he said.
• On the difficulty of selling rural lawmakers on funding increases for mass transit, Mr. Schoch said "we subsidize rural roads at a much higher rate than urban public transportation."
First Published December 17, 2012 12:12 am