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July 8, 2013 | By | Posted in Legislature

Drive on: PA roads may crumble without new transportation bill, but will voters care?

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

HARRISBURG – Pavement may crumble and bridges may close, but Pennsylvania lawmakers likely won’t lose their office for not spending billions of dollars in a transportation bill this June.

NOT YET: Pennsylvania won't see a multi-billion dollar infusion to transportation funding just yet.

NOT YET: Pennsylvania won’t see a multi-billion dollar infusion to transportation funding just yet.

Since lawmakers did not pass a $2.5 billion funding plan before leaving for summer recess, Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch said last week that he’s lost a construction season for making repairs.

As a result, his department may have to put weight restrictions on as many as 1,200 bridges across the state.

“That’s due the age the system, the number of bridges we have and the lack of revenue we have to do all of them,” Schoch said.

Without an additional funding package, PennDOT expects to spend about $1.6 billion on construction contracts for road and bridge repairs, down from about $2 billion in 2012.

But whether voters will hold the state legislature accountable for a decrease in road repairs is unclear. According to some polls, while Pennsylvania drivers would like better roads, they’ve got other priorities and are hesitant about higher gas prices to fund them.

A February poll from Franklin and Marshall College found more than four in five registered voters believe the state should spend more on transportation infrastructure. But only two in five supported plans to fund these repairs by uncapping the oil franchise tax, a wholesale tax that could raise gas prices and increases vehicle and driver’s fees.

Those mechanisms were part of a $2.5 billion annual funding package passed by the state Senate that didn’t make it to a floor vote in the House of Representatives.

In May, the same polling institution found roads and infrastructure were the tenth most important issues to voters. Just 2 percent said it was the most important problem facing Pennsylvania, with issues like the state’s economy, job creation, taxes and health care ranking higher.

Terry Madonna, pollster and political science professor for the college’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs, said he doesn’t expect legislators to lose their seats over votes they did, or did not, end up taking on transportation plans.

Political opponents running against them, though, may use the inaction as part of a greater strategy.

“People who want to run against all lawmakers will argue that they’re part of a dysfunctional process,” he said. “That they’re in an institution that doesn’t function, that doesn’t work.”

Some 30 lawmakers have signed pledges against raising taxes or fees. If they had voted for a transportation plan, they may have been accused of violating their oath. But barring any infrastructure-induced tragedies in the state, a lack of funding for new roads alone isn’t enough to boot someone out, Madonna said.

Rather, it’s a piece of a larger problem that some voters might want to change. And, Madonna said if roads continue to worsen to the point that drivers begin to make it more of an issue, it could propel lawmakers to act.

Jenny Robinson, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the organization was disappointed in the result of this latest proposal, but they’re hopeful for future action.

“The issue has been out there for months and it’s disappointing the problem hasn’t been solved,” Robinson said.

Something has to be done, Robinson said, because the state’s infrastructure won’t fix itself: The average bridge in Pennsylvania is around 50 years old. Robinson said drivers may see worse-off roads and more congestion as result of PennDOT’s bridge restrictions and continued wear and tear.

A recent report from TRIP, a national nonprofit research group, found current road conditions in Pennsylvania cost the average driver about $1,646 in annual expenses.

Robinson said AAA will continue to champion funding for road repairs, while urging concerned drivers to do the same.

“If you don’t like the road you drive, if you feel they are too bumpy, too safe, too ineffective, too unsafe, too crowded and you can’t get your businesses done, we urge people to go to their lawmakers,” Robinson said.

WOZNIAK: The Cambia County lawmaker is a strong supporter of passing transportation infrastructure, but doubts the issue will gain much steam in the fall.

WOZNIAK: The Cambia County lawmaker is a strong supporter of passing transportation infrastructure, but doubts the issue will gain much steam in the fall.

Gov. Tom Corbett, Schoch and many lawmakers have pledged to take up the bill again in the fall legislative session.

If not, some worry about the consequences, those that go beyond the political.

Senate Transportation Minority Chairman John Wozniak, D-Johnstown, who helped draft the proposal, said he is doubtful lawmakers will consider the bill this year. It’s that much closer to the next election, and Wozniak said that may make lawmakers uneasy about casting an affirmative vote for an increase in gas prices.

But, Wozniak said without addressing Pennsylvania roads, the public is at risk for a dangerous incident — such as a bridge collapse.

“It’s not a matter of if,” Wozniak said. “It’s a matter of when. And we’re going to get blamed.”

Contact Melissa Daniels at Melissa@paindependent.com

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Melissa Daniels is a reporter for PA Independent. She can be reached at 717-350-0962 or Melissa@PAIndependent.com

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