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Expressway 'headed in the right direction'

| Saturday, May 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

This summer marks the first in two decades that there has been no construction on the Mon/Fayette Expressway and Southern Beltway.

But Joe Kirk, executive director of the Mon Valley Progress Council, believes there is cause for optimism. He said actions taken by the legislature and Gov. Tom Corbett could lead to new construction on the projects in coming years.

“To use old sports analogy, the ball is headed in the right direction,” said Kirk, a longtime advocate for the highway projects.

Recently advanced out of the Senate Transportation Committee, Senate Bill 1 of 2013 has two provisions that could bode well for the future of the Expressway and Beltway. The senate bill, introduced by Transportation Chairman John Rafferty, maintains a formula created in 1985 that allocates 14 percent of the oil franchise tax to fund turnpike expansion projects.

If the bill becomes law, the Turnpike Commission would have the discretion to determine which projects to fund.

But that the funding stream has been used by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to bond most of the construction on the Beltway and Expressway projects to date, Kirk said.

The bill also aims to raise the cap on the oil franchise tax, which currently is $1.25 of the price of a gallon of gas at the pump. The bill could more than double that amount.

The bill has cleared the Senate transportation committee and is now in the Senate finance committee. Kirk said the Senate bill enjoys bipartisan support.

“I think we will see a vote on the Rafferty transportation bill by late May,” Kirk said.

He described the issue as “more challenging” in the state House.

Steve Miskin, spokesman for State Rep. Mike Turzai, said the state currently spends $6.5 billion combined on roads, bridges and transit, “which seems to be lost on all of this discussion.”

“The Senate seems to be taking the lead on this issue,” Miskin said. “We will consider whatever comes out of the Senate.”

“If bill gets passed and signed into law, will those funds result in advancement of the Expressway and Beltway project?” Kirk said. “We are certainly going to work toward that goal.”

Gov. Corbett also has supported lifting the oil franchise cap, although at a slower rate than the Senate bill, Kirk said.

Kirk explained that $2.5 billion in new transportation funding is raised under Rafferty Bill, and $1.8 billion in Corbett proposal. In addition to raising the oil franchise tax, both the bill and the Corbett administration proposal would generate money by raising fees for drivers' registration and a surcharge on traffic tickets to fund mass transit, for example.

“My sense is the Senate understands the issue and sees the need for immediate revenue to address it,” Kirk said.

“This is really the first time that a governor has come out with such a definitive and strong plan to address transportation needs. I applaud the governor for putting forth a plan for addressing needs for broader plan.”

Erin Waters-Trasatt, spokeswoman for PennDOT's Harrisburg office, said the state won't speculate on the legislative process.

“We're pleased Sen. Rafferty has shown leadership on this issue because it is so important for Pennsylvania,” she said. “We look forward to continuing dialogue on this issue.”

Asked about prospects for the bill in the House, Waters-Trasatt said, “We look forward to it going through the legislative process.”

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or