The Pennsylvania Transportation Funding and Reform Commission issued an interim report last week on the state's "transportation funding crisis" and will hold a series of public hearings to address how to pay for maintenance and improvements to Keystone state highways, bridges and transit systems.
The commission was appointed by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell last year, following his emergency action tapping federal flex dollars to stave off a financial crisis in 16 of the state's transit agencies. The flexing dollars run out at the end of December.
According to the commission's interim report, Pennsylvania will require a minimum of $866 million a year in new funding to maintain the transportation system in place today and $2.2 billion for improvements, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
Without the additional money, road construction and resurfacing will be curtailed, more bridges will be closed or weight-restricted and public transit riders will face deep service cuts and big fare increases. The 25-page report does not recommend sources of new funding, the Post-Gazette reported.
The commission is to recommend solutions by Nov. 15, the deadline that Gov. Rendell set for a final report to him and the Legislature.
"At that point, the commission's work will be complete," Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation Allen Biehler told the Post-Gazette. Biehler is the chairman of the nine-member commission. "If we get a real solution out of it, the time and money will have been well spent."
The Pennsylvania General Assembly may act on any recommendations during the three-week period following the November elections when lawmakers historically have been known to tackle thorny issues with less fear of voter reprisals, the newspaper said. The two-year Legislative session ends Nov. 30.
A failure to act, Biehler said, would mean fewer miles of roads will be resurfaced, the state's bridge crisis will grow worse, no new roads will be built and transit systems "will basically be on their own, with no more funding tools to address their problem," the Post-Gazette reported.
A 50% increase in fares and a 20% service reduction could be in store at the Port Authority of Allegheny County and Philadelphia-based Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, the commission said, resulting in increased congestion, business and job losses and people stranded with no other means of transportation.
The Legislature approved a record $400 million-a-year package of higher gasoline taxes and motor vehicle fees in 1997. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation said the funding has been eroded by inflation and surging energy, cement and steel prices that have halved its purchasing power.
Automatic increases in the Oil Company Franchise Tax have brought in another 5 cents a gal over the last three years, enough for the department to sustain maintenance activities for now, the Post-Gazette reported.
State assistance to public transit agencies, while higher than in other states, has been stagnant, and transit lacks a dedicated funding source similar to Pennsylvania's Motor License Fund (MLF). All money from state fuel taxes and vehicle and license fees is deposited in the MLF, which can be used only for highway- and bridge-related purposes.
The report, called "Investing in Our Future: Addressing Pennsylvania's Transportation Funding Crisis," was recently posted on the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation website. It is available by visiting http://www.dot.state.pa.us.
West Virginia group addresses state transportation crisis
A group consisting of 50 organizations involved in construction, economic development and government calling itself "West Virginians for Better Transportation" has formed to educate fellow Mountaineer state citizens about their highway system that is on the verge of a crisis, the Charleston Daily Mail reported.
"Without our citizenry thinking it's important ... the hard steps to solve the problem most likely won't be taken," said Joe Deneault, chairman of West Virginians for Better Transportation. "If we don't address the problems now...we will be overwhelmed."
Funding shortages, increased traffic and aging roadways are taking their toll on the state's 37,000 miles of state-maintained roadway, said Deneault, a former state engineer with the Division of Highways.
The Daily Mail reported that The Road Information Program said West Virginia's problems include:
Twenty-seven percent of the state's major roads are in poor to mediocre condition;
Thirty-seven percent of the state's 6,343 bridges are deficient or obsolete; and
Sixty-three percent of the state's 549 miles of interstate highway will need significant repair by 2026.
The Division of Highways (DOH) relies heavily on federal dollars. The state's share comes mainly from privilege and gasoline taxes and registration fees.
When taking inflation into account, state collections peaked in 1994 at $609 million. Funding fell to $460 million last year, in inflation-adjusted dollars.
The DOH also is facing a $35 million cutback in federal funding and a potential $55 million cut in state funding next August if a nickel gas tax increase is not reauthorized. Lawmakers increased the tax in the early 1990s during former Gov. Gaston Caperton's administration, the Daily Mail reported.