Proponents push transportation bill at state Senate hearing in Monroeville
State Sen. Timothy Solobay said Thursday that “a strong, coordinated effort” will be needed to pass what some called “the largest tax increase in Pennsylvania history” before the fiscal year ends June 30.
“The political courage is there,” Solobay, a Democrat from Canonsburg, told a Senate Transportation Committee hearing at Community College of Allegheny County's Boyce Campus in Monroeville, about support for Senate Bill 1.
The bill would increase some fees and fines and take the cap off the state's oil company franchise tax to raise $2.5 billion a year for roads, bridges and mass transit.
Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport, called the bill “the most difficult vote in a long time” for lawmakers.
“We must combat the chronic naysayers,” Brewster said. “We have to get out of our silos and our paradigms and realize that we are competing on a world level.”
Brewster arranged for Thursday's hearing, where state and county officials, business leaders and others addressed various issues, including the dairy industry.
“A dairy company chose to go to Virginia rather than Pennsylvania because of our bridges,” PennDOT secretary Barry Schoch said. “We have 14,000 bridges that can take 80,000 pounds and no more.”
New York has a top bridge limit of 95,000 pounds, Schoch said.
“The dairy industry is losing $1 billion a year because of our bridge problem,” he said.
Monroeville Area Chamber of Commerce president Frank Horrigan said his membership is willing to bear the costs of SB 1 if it will mean restored mass transit in the eastern suburbs. Proponents have estimated that the cost to motorists will be about $2.50 a week.
“At Forbes Regional Hospital, some jobs have been declined because people have not been able to get to work,” Horrigan said. He cited problems for CVS Caremark and Doubletree.
“The importance of obtaining a comprehensive transportation bill to repair and maintain 40,000 miles of roads and 25,000 bridges, while effectively sustaining paratransit and fixed route services is crucial,” said Port Authority interim CEO Ellen McLean.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said efforts to shore up funding for Port Authority were appreciated by BNY Mellon officials. He said bank officials in New York told him, “thank goodness Allegheny County didn't have transit cutbacks,” because 56 percent of BNY Mellon's Pittsburgh employees use Port Authority.
“We grew 10,600 jobs last year,” Fitzgerald said. “We need transit to keep that momentum going.”
Minority chairman Sen. John Wozniak, D-Johnstown, presided over much of the hearing. Schoch and committee majority chairman Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery County, left early to join Gov. Tom Corbett as he linked public safety and infrastructure at the dedication of a new bridge on Interstate 83.
“Every school day, more than 31,000 buses carry one-and-a-half million Pennsylvania children from across our roads and bridges,” Corbett said in Cumberland County. “Four thousand of those bridges are now structurally deficient and almost 10,000 miles of those roads are in poor condition.”
Schoch said Corbett wants by June 30 to sign SB 1 or another version of a plan by his Transportation Policy Advisory Commission.
Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, said some legislators oppose tying infrastructure improvements to mass transit funding.
“To those who would want to keep them separate, I would say they're being shortsighted,” White said.
Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill County, would fund only the roads and bridges in an “infrastructure future fund” that gets revenue from the proposed sale of state liquor stores, rather than lifting the cap on the franchise tax.
Reps. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth Township, and Eli Evankovich, R-Delmont, are co-sponsors of Knowles' House Bill 220.
Another aspect of SB 1 is a proposed $85 million a year for Act 61 Mon/Fayette Expressway funding.
Joe Kirk of the Mon Valley Progress Council said that $85 million can be converted into the authority to sell $1.3 billion in bonds toward a $4 billion expansion of Mon/Fayette from Jefferson Hills to Monroeville.
Kirk also said public-private partnerships can be utilized.
Horrigan and his counterpart from Mon Yough Area Chamber of Commerce, Maury Burgwin, joined Kirk in addressing Mon/Fayette.
Burgwin brought a petition signed by 58 MYAC members including unanimous support from the chamber's board.
Burgwin said Mon/Fayette “would reduce traffic on neighborhood streets by 40 percent” in Mon-Yough towns.
“In the long term we favor Mon/Fayette,” Horrigan said, “but it is more important in the short term to restore mass transit costs.”
The needs of bicyclists also were raised during the two-hour Boyce Campus session.
Because of trails such as the Great Allegheny Passage, “each year we're seeing $50 million of direct spending in our communities,” Allegheny Trail Alliance board president Linda McKenna Boxx said.
She said the state's investment has been crucial in a 35-year, $80 million effort to build the GAP.
“About half of the funding for construction has come from federal transportation enhancements through PennDOT and a quarter through (Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) grant programs and state capital budget funds,” Boxx said.
She asked the committee for support in encouraging Amtrak to provide roll-on/roll-off bicycle service, especially on the Capitol Limited which parallels the GAP.
Without such service, Boxx said, “bike-based tourism is stymied.”
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.