Pennsylvania Legislature fails to act on transportation funding
Pennsylvania's transportation funding quandary
July 2, 2013 4:00 AM
"Doing nothing is unacceptable."Rep. William Kortz,Democrat from Dravosburg,a member of thetransportation committee
"This is something that has to be done."State Rep. Dick Hess,Republican from Bedford,chairman of the House Transportation Committee
By Jon Schmitz Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Despite bipartisan support and consensus among a diverse array of interest groups that included labor, business, highway builders, transit riders, environmentalists and groups representing elderly and disabled people, the Legislature was unable to pass a funding measure before calling it quits for the summer.
By all indications, the transportation bill got sideswiped by politics. House Democrats accused Republicans of shortchanging public transit in the final bill, while GOP lawmakers charged Democrats with sabotaging it to undermine the political agenda of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
The short-term impacts of the failure to act likely will include weight restrictions that keep heavier vehicles off of deteriorating bridges, worse roads and a new round of financial problems for Port Authority.
"Without question, it's going to happen this calendar year," Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said of the weight limits, which over time could extend to 1,200 state-owned bridges. "I've been very clear that this is a consequence of no action."
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation had held off on posting bridges in the hope of securing additional funding to repair them.
"It's going to have an effect on the economy, on the cost of goods and services, and on traffic congestion," Mr. Schoch said.
Among the bridges at risk for weight limits that would keep trucks, buses and some emergency vehicles off of them is the Liberty Bridge in Downtown. It needs a $40 million to $60 million rehabilitation, but PennDOT doesn't have the money.
Another impact of legislative inaction is that PennDOT does not have the money to continue $30 million in annual supplemental funding to the Port Authority, Mr. Schoch said.
The funding was part of an agreement that averted a 35 percent service cut in September. The transit workers union agreed to $60 million in contract concessions, and may be in a position to void the deal if the authority has to cut service and lay off workers.
"We said we had the money last year but we needed a transportation bill," Mr. Schoch said. "We don't have enough money to cover the fiscal year. At some point this calendar year, the commitment [of extra state funding] will run out."
He said he did not yet know how much of the $30 million the state will be able to provide. The authority's budget for the fiscal year that began Monday anticipates the full $30 million.
"That's a concern," Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said. "That's the risk that we're worried about. It's getting a little dicey, no question about it."
He said he remained optimistic that legislative leaders will come to an agreement later this year.
Chris Sandvig, regional policy director for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, which rallied support for a funding bill, said the failure to pass it could be disastrous for Port Authority and its riders.
Last year's agreement with Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union has a provision voiding the contract concessions and going back to the previous agreement if the authority has to cut service and lay off workers because of inadequate state funding.
"If [Mr. Schoch] can't come through with that money, we're in a whole world of hurt with service very soon. Thirty million dollars is not chump change. If you hit that trigger and go back to the original contract, you would have to cut even more service," Mr. Sandvig said. "This could be a big house of cards."
Ken Zapinski, senior vice president of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which also lobbied hard for a funding bill, said, "We're disappointed in the way things turned out. ... We think it was a lost opportunity to develop an adequate, comprehensive, sustainable transportation funding program for the state."
More than 4,000 state-owned bridges are rated structurally deficient. While that number has gone down recently, it remains the highest total in the U.S., and PennDOT said the total will grow without additional funding.
In 2011, 9,200 miles of state roadway were considered in poor condition, and PennDOT estimates that will rise to 16,000 miles by 2017 without additional funding.
Many of the state's public transit agencies are in financial trouble, including SEPTA in Philadelphia and Port Authority here.
Port Authority cut service by 15 percent in 2007 and again in 2011 before narrowly avoiding last year's 35 percent cut. It has raised fares three times in the last five years, and its $2.50 base fare is highest in the nation.
Inaction also will hit the state's economy, PennDOT said on its Decade of Investment website promoting transportation funding legislation.
"Commerce will suffer as increased truck traffic, commuter traffic and the inability to increase highway capacity will make goods movement slower.
"Prices for the goods and services we use every day will go up because of increased costs with system deterioration ..."
A funding bill would have generated 50,000 new construction jobs; inaction will cause a loss of 12,000 jobs, it said.