ROADS/BRIDGES: Funding ebbs and tides in the Northeast U.S.

Feb. 24, 2015

Pennsylvania enjoys funding flood while neighboring Massachusetts endures funding woes

Two very different situations coming out of the Atlantic region of late. While many states are facing down upkeep and maintenance struggles with regard to their highway systems, Pennsylvania has begun to implement a multifaceted, multibillion-dollar blueprint intended to accelerate road and bridge projects, bolster mass transit and levy subsidies to local governments. Back in 2013, an increase in taxes, fees and fines was approved and now that revenue plan has begun its five-year phase-in to the tune of an estimated $2.3 billion generated annually, most of which will go toward road and bridge projects, with further millions earmarked for railroad, seaport and airport maintenance and development.

"We finally have money to do things," said Sen. John Rafferty (R-Montgomery), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, who helped lead the campaign to sell the proposal in the legislature.

Pennsylvania is among a dozen states that have raised transportation taxes and/or fees over the last few years, but its comprehensive strategy is an even rarer thing. Federal Highway Trust Fund output has declined 3.5% since 2008 and yet in the interim, Pennsylvania has disbursed billions into roads and bridges work—more than $7 billion in 2013 alone.

In 2014 alone, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation was able, by virtue of this statewide program, to invest $800 million into improvements on 1,600 miles of roadway and 83 bridges that would not have been completed without it, said PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick, in a statement. This is a marked change to actions taken by PennDOT three months prior to this new legislation’s passage when the agency, prodded by uncertainty over additional funding from the legislature, announced new weight restrictions on about 1,000 of the nearly 4,500 state and local bridges classified as “structurally deficient.” Overall, accelerated bridge construction is gaining ground in the state as an augmentation to Penn DOT’s modis operandi.

In Massachusetts, however, funding has been dwindling since the $7 billion investiture in the “Big Dig” project, to the degree that legislators and agency officials are now scrambling to provide answers to the state’s infrastructure woes.

According to numbers culled by the Associated Press, monies available to Massachusetts from the Federal Highway Trust Fund dropped 3.1% from 2008 to 2013. The state’s share dropped from about $680 million to $654 million between 2010 and 2011, and again from $658 million to $620 million between 2012 and 2013. When adjusted for inflation, the state has seen a 10.1% drop in highway trust fund receipts over that five-year period.

The brutal winter weather over the past several weeks has the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority on the ropes, forcing the Boston-area’s aging transit system to close several times and to further limit service besides. Lawmakers have juggled a slew of potential short- and long-term fixes for the state’s crumbling infrastructure. A 2008 law directed $3 billion toward bridge repairs, including a $260 million reconstruction of the historic Longfellow Bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge.

The state's gas tax, however, had remained static since 1991, until the 2013 3-cent hike to 24 cents per gallon. The law was expected to raise approximately $600 million in annual additional funds for roads, bridges and public transit by 2018, yet such a figure is being regarded as simply not enough to last the long haul. In November, an indexing provision that would have tied future increases in the gas tax to inflation was repealed by voters, who justified their decision by characterizing the index as taxation without representation. It is estimated that the loss of the indexing provision will cost the state $100 million per year hereforth.

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