Urgency sought for funding Pennsylvania roads and transit

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Pittsburgh business, civic and government leaders and a bipartisan group of state senators sought Wednesday to turn up the heat on state House members to pass a funding bill for roads, bridges, transit and other transportation modes.

Speaking at separate legislative hearings, they warned of economic harm, human suffering and jeopardized public safety that could result if the Legislature fails to agree on a transportation measure when legislators resume their session next month.

Several speakers, including the acting CEO of the Port Authority, called upon the House to pass the bill that was approved by the state Senate in June. It would eventually raise up to $2.5 billion in new annual revenue by uncapping the tax on gasoline wholesalers and raising several vehicle fees.

Gov. Tom Corbett, in a visit to Pittsburgh, said work was continuing "behind the scenes" to reconcile the Senate bill with a House version that would generate far less revenue.

"There are announcements that will be coming," he said.

At a Downtown hearing, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee acknowledged a need for increases in transportation funding. Chairman Bill Adolph said he would push for a full House vote in the fall.

"The worst thing we can do is nothing," said Mr. Adolph, R-Delaware. "So I think with that in mind we'll be able to work out a plan."

But difficulty appeared to remain in finding a spending number that could pass both chambers. Rep. Joe Markosek of Monroeville, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said he saw the spending level in the Senate bill as the floor for his caucus: "Anything less than that is almost not worth doing."

The cause is urgent, and imminent -- the Department of Transportation said late Wednesday that it would announce new weight restrictions today on about 1,000 bridges. PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch has said that failure to approve new funding would force his agency to add weight restrictions. Steve Chizmar, a PennDOT spokesman, said the step is needed to preserve the safety of the bridges.

Members of the House panel heard Wednesday from business leaders, who said investing in infrastructure would drive economic growth. Vince Sands, deputy CEO of BNY Mellon, told the group that 50 percent of the company's employees in Pittsburgh rely solely on public transportation.

"This is really important to us," he said. "We have to get our people to work."

Transportation is important not only to keep a location running, he said, but also when the company is deciding where to create new jobs.

In McCandless, four state senators heard more than two hours of testimony about the economic and social importance of a good transportation network.

All voted yes when the Senate passed its transportation funding bill in a 45-5 vote in June. The reason for the hearing was to ramp up pressure on the House, and particularly Majority Leader Mike Turzai of Bradford Woods, to move on the legislation.

"Yes it is. Of course, it is," said Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, when asked if that was the hearing's purpose. "Especially people in Allegheny County."

"The target now is to get the House of Representatives to act on a transportation bill," said Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, who chairs the transportation committee.

Although Mr. Turzai's name wasn't mentioned, there were veiled references to his role in the House's failed attempt to pass a bill before recessing in June. And the hearing, at A.W. Beattie Career Center, was in the heart of Mr. Turzai's district.

In an interview later, Mr. Turzai, said "everybody recognizes that transportation infrastructure, particularly highways and bridges, is something we want to address. We're going to be laserlike in our analysis, and it's going to be a bipartisan discussion."

While he would not directly rule out House passage of the Senate bill, he said that "our focus will be on critical needs. We're looking at options that address those needs and balancing that with our fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers."

Several speakers at the hearing focused on the economic and human costs if public transit isn't sustained, while others warned about further decay of roads and bridges.

"If people with disabilities cannot rely on public transportation, many of them would essentially live under house arrest," said Barbara Sieck Taylor, executive director of Grantmakers of Western Pennsylvania, which represents more than 85 philanthropic organizations.

A survey showed that nearly one-third of the workforce of local nonprofits relies on transit. "Underresourced public transit can undermine the impact of every nonprofit organization and virtually every grant investment [Grantmakers] members make," she said.

"Public transit is essential for human services to function," said Robert Nelkin, president of the United Way of Allegheny County.

And John Trant Jr., chief strategy director for Cranberry, said, "In addition to adequately maintaining state highways and assuring the public that our bridges are safe, capacity improvement projects are needed to move employees to and from key employers in our community," including Westinghouse, Alcoa and Verizon.

Transportation is the "No. 1 issue" for the businesses that make up the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, president Dewitt Peart said.

Acting Port Authority CEO Ellen McLean said the Senate-passed bill would "enable the Port Authority to offer this region not just reliable service without the constant threat of cuts, but a transit service with improved amenities such as real-time bus and rail information, bus rapid transit in our heavy corridors and improved infrastructure across the system."

state - Transportation

Mark Belko contributed to this story. Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic. Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 717-884-3512.


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