Pa. lags behind its neighbors in funding transportation
By Patrick Cloonan
Published: Saturday, May 18, 2013, 1:26 a.m.
Crafting a comprehensive state transportation policy — funding everything from Port Authority to bridges, bike trails to the Mon/Fayette Expressway — is needed but won't be easy, panelists said at Friday's Mon Yough Area Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast.
“We are lagging behind neighboring states in terms of delivering sustained and significant investment to our transportation system,” said Kurt J. Myers, PennDOT deputy secretary for safety administration.
Myers told the gathering at Westwood Golf Club that Virginia, Maryland and Ohio all passed bills “to position those states at the forefront for businesses looking to relocate their operations.”
A possible answer is Senate Bill 1, a $2.5 billion-a-year plan by Senate Transportation Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery County, now before the Senate Appropriations Committee. It may get a floor vote early next month.
“This bill is comprehensive,” said co-sponsor Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport, who on May 7 joined 13 of 14 Transportation Committee members in OK'ing SB 1.
It includes seed funding that could go toward a final extension of the Mon/Fayette Expressway between Jefferson Hills and Monroeville.
Myers said the governor's plan also has “$85 million (for) the Pennsylvania Turnpike to complete Act 61 (of 1985) projects — which is critically important to all of the Mon/Fayette supporters.”
Brewster arranged for a Senate Transportation Committee hearing on May 30 at Community College of Allegheny County Boyce Campus, which PennDOT secretary Barry Schoch is scheduled to attend.
“I think there is bipartisan support,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said. “I am hopeful everyone can get that done in a timely fashion.”
Myers said SB 1 differs from a plan by Gov. Tom Corbett's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission.
“While the funding levels differ, both ... are serious in trying to address the vexing funding issues we face,” Myers said. “Both the governor and secretary Schoch have said there is plenty of room for discussion.”
“It gives a lot more flexibility than does the governor's (plan),” Brewster said.
Brewster said the issue of mass transit is seen differently between Allegheny County, where 50 percent of commuters make use of Port Authority, and rural counties that aren't interested in it.
Whatever transportation bill finally passes may include increased taxes, particularly elimination of a cap on the Oil Company Franchise Tax.
Kortz said that may mean an increase in gasoline prices but said it worked out to $2.50 per week per driver — and panel moderator Jon Delano of KDKA-2 said that may be better than the wear and tear of existing roads on a car's shocks and brakes.
Rep. Marc Gergely, D-White Oak, said there have been tough votes before. He recalled an increase in the state's personal income tax passed in his first year in the legislature — which also was the first year in office for Gov. Ed Rendell.
State legislators on a panel at the breakfast suggested that House Republican leaders want to tie transportation policy to the privatizing of state wine and liquor stores.
“It is wrong to link those two issues,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa Jr., D-Forest Hills. “Let each of these measures stand on its own.”
The press secretary to House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, disputed the remarks, noting the House already passed a privatization bill.
“Whoever said that (at Westwood) is either misinformed or purposely misinforming the public,” Stephen Miskin said.
Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said that panel has had no discussion of the governor's plan or SB 1.
”The Senate has made it very clear that they wanted to take the lead (on transportation),” Miskin said. “When it comes over from the Senate we will take a look at it and be engaged.”
Still, Gergely said, “this is going to have to be a 50/50 bill, negotiated with the House leadership.”
The area's two federal legislators were represented by aides Nate Nevala for U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Jeffrey Schaffer for U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills.
Nevala said Murphy has reintroduced House of Representatives or HR 787, “The Infrastructure Jobs and Energy Independence Act,” aimed at rebuilding aging locks, dams, bridges and roads.
“This legislation is a 20-year outline,” Nevala said. Its aim is to provide “$2.2 trillion to $3.7 trillion in dedicated revenues without raising taxes.”
Schaffer said Doyle still is trying to bring an end to the federal budget sequestration. He recalled how federal aid funneled through PennDOT helped build flyover ramps in Duquesne and McKeesport.
Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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