By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Eyeballing the immensity of federal spending, the late Senate leader Everett McKinley Dirksen is supposed to have observed, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”
Pennsylvania lawmakers may recall the Illinois Republican, as they consider a sprawling new U.S. transportation bill.
On the one hand, in June, after 27 months of 90-day stopgap funding measures, federal lawmakers passed the long-stalled Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, also known as MAP-21. The $118 billion federal measure stabilizes federal transportation funding for two full years.
You might think Pennsylvania’s cut — about $1.6 billion per year — is real money. But as generous as it sounds, that’s about $100 million less than in previous years, and it’s intended for operation costs. The massive federal spending won’t begin to pay for Pennsylvania’s unfunded $3.5 billion worth of unmet transportation needs.
Real money, indeed.
Last summer, Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration called up the Transportation Funding Advisory Commission to study Pennsylvania’s infrastructure. Immediate needs were estimated at $3.5 billion. Unmet, those needs would require additional funding of $7.2 billion through 2020, due to inflation and decreases in fuel tax revenue.
The report put the figure of structurally deficient bridges at 5,200, the highest in the country. The state has repaired about 400 of those bridges. A structurally deficient bridge is one that requires repair or replacement, yet is still considered safe to drive on. Sometimes, they are weight restricted, causing detours.
The report also offered recommendations for cost-saving measures and a 10-year repair plan.
Dennis Buterbaugh, press secretary for Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, said reliable federal funding for the next two years will help the state better plan for road maintenance.
“It’s very difficult to do any planning, because planning for some of these other projects can take more than a year,” he said. “If you’re not sure you have the funding, you kind of hesitate.”
PennDOT improves approximately 1,750 miles of road and invests in 320 bridges a year.
Some of the funding cuts in MAP-21 come from reductions in transportation alternatives. That includes $27 million for consolidating three programs for street enhancements, trails and student walk-to-school routes, as opposed to $40 million in previous years.
MAP-21 didn’t include any earmarks for particular projects, and $500 million is set aside for “projects of national and regional importance” on a grant-only basis.
Buterbaugh said PennDOT is waiting on lawmakers to act on the transportation commission’s recommendations.
“Once we see what lawmakers and the governor want to do with the many recommendations in that report, I think then we’ll get a better feel for projects and what we can do,” he said.
Up to the state
There’s another thing to consider: states are seeing fewer dollars from the federal fuel tax, unchanged at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, as cars become more fuel efficient and drivers use alternate transportation.
Jason Wagner, director of policy and government relations for highway contractors trade group Associated Pennsylvania Constructors, said federal funding levels put pressure on states to act.
Doing nothing, he said, will exceed the cost of repair through fuel prices, vehicle wear and tear, and temporary fixes.
“I think the state has to recognize its infrastructure is an asset,” Wagner said. “You can’t do it once and walk away from it. You have to maintain it. You have to improve it.”
Corbett indicated during his budget address that transportation reform is its own legislation, separate from the budget process. Later, state Senate Democrats attempted to set a special session on transportation, but GOP members have attempted to block it.
Other potential plans involve the private sector. House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Rick Geist, R-Altoona, sponsored a bill for public-private partnerships to fund transportation, or P3s, which passed in late June. The bill lets private companies contract with the government to take on public transportation projects, with the ability to toll roads.
Geist said he’s hopeful P3s will help renovate major congested arteries, like the Schuylkill Expressway and I-95.
On the horizon
Despite relatively flat federal funding, and a lack of new state reforms, “We continue to operate and fix projects as needed, and a lot are still under way,” Buterbaugh said.
In late June, the state awarded its largest contract, more than $212 million, for renovations to the heavily traveled Interstate 95 corridor in Philadelphia. Improvements include seven bridge replacements, utility replacements, new ramps and a fourth travel lane.
Federal funds will support 90 percent of the project, which will begin this year and wrap up in the summer of 2017. But more projects could happen, with plans for an interchange on the PA Turnpike.
Additionally, MAP-21 does include one noteworthy boon for Pennsylvania travelers — new guidelines for implementing the Appalachian Development Highway System, a connective corridor through the mountain region. The measure says those projects can be paid for with 100 percent federal funding, removing a stipulation that would require state governments to chip in toll money.
The project will expand Route 219 from Somerset County to I-68 in Maryland from a two-lane into a four-lane highway.
Buterbaugh said officials may bid that project later this year.