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Pennsylvania's transportation issues expected to persist

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
A bridge is built over Interstate 495 in Virginia in October 2011. The work was part of a $1.4 billion project to widen the interstate, also known as the Capital Beltway, to include four new toll lanes designed to ease congestion. Virginia covered about $400 million of the cost, while a private company provided the remaining $1 billion in exchange for future toll revenue. Submitted

Contractors are encouraged by a new law that allows private firms to partner with governments to fix, build and profit from public infrastructure.

But they don't think it will solve Pennsylvania's transportation problems.

“I think it will be a valuable tool in the toolbox and it definitely is an innovative way to help fund transportation projects. But it won't be the panacea or end-all-be-all to solve the funding problems,” said Richard J. Barcaskey, executive director of the Constructors Association of Western Pennsylvania.

Private firms invest in transportation projects they think could turn a profit, not for altruistic reasons, Barcaskey said.

“I think we'll see a lot of activity,” PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch said.

Legislators passed the public-private partnership law, known as Act 88, last summer. PennDOT officials spent the rest of the year crafting policies to administer the program.

A seven-member board will examine and approve proposed public-private transportation projects.

Bryan Kendro, director of the Office of Policy & Public-Private Partnerships, said no firms had submitted formal applications as of late last year, but state leaders have received a “decent amount of feedback” since the law's passage.

Schoch said the state modeled its policy after Virginia's. There, private groups invest billions in public transportation projects. The state government covered just $400 million of the $1.4 billion cost to build four lanes along a 14-mile stretch of Interstate 495, known as the Capital Beltway. The private investor, Fluor-Transurban, will collect tolls for 75 years.

Former Rep. Rick Geist of Altoona, who introduced Pennsylvania's law, said investors could look for a similar deal in exchange for money to finance improvements along busy I-95 in the Philadelphia area. In Western Pennsylvania, he said, private investment could help advance the Mon-Fayette Expressway or Southern Beltway projects, or make improvements to reduce congestion on the Parkway East or West.

Not all projects are tied to roads.

“We might become the first Act 88 project in the state,” Port Authority CEO Steve Bland said.

EQT and the Heinz Foundation spent nearly $300,000 on a study that showed it could cost $20.8 million up front to begin converting a portion of Port Authority's bus fleet to natural gas. The move could save at least $3 million a year.

Bland said the cash-strapped agency cannot afford to pursue a conversion without private investment.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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