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Likely $2.3B influx puts PennDOT big-ticket road projects in play

| Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, 11:20 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
The Veterans Memorial Bridge, which spans the Beaver River, nears completion in Bridgewater, Beaver County, on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013.

A $22 million bridge project in Beaver County that crews will finish in spring remains an anomaly.

When construction began three years ago on the Veterans Memorial Bridge across the Beaver River, PennDOT officials said it was Pennsylvania's only major project to build a bridge where one hadn't existed. It will connect Route 51 in Bridgewater and Routes 6 518 in Rochester Township.

Road- and bridge-building projects, which PennDOT calls “capacity-adding projects,” remain rare in Pennsylvania. But the agency's top official said this week that a recently adopted plan to generate $2.3 billion a year for transportation needs could change that.

“We have such a huge backlog of maintenance and construction needs that we're not going to build new bridges at the expense of weight-restricting or closing existing ones,” said PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch.

Schoch said he expects a gradual uptick in projects across the state because of the anticipated money. How much and how quickly is unknown, he said.

“It will grow, but it's going to be gradual,” Schoch said of the construction work.

The Legislature in November passed the transportation bill pushed by Gov. Tom Corbett. It eventually will raise prices at gasoline pumps, critics said, because it lifts the cap on the wholesale gasoline tax. More revenue will come through higher fees for motorists.

In 2001, PennDOT spent about 25 percent of its construction dollars on capacity-adding projects.

Budget constraints and soaring repair needs, however, then prompted PennDOT to shift focus to maintenance of roads and bridges. In 2004, the agency halted more than $5 billion in planned capacity-adding projects.

For the past five years, PennDOT has spent less than 5 percent of its construction dollars on such work, including just 3 percent of more than $2 billion in construction funding this year, state records show.

Martin Pietrucha, director of the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute at Penn State, questions whether PennDOT should return to high percentages of capacity-adding work. He pointed to studies showing that people are driving less and car ownership is down among young people who are increasingly turning to other modes such as transit.

“I don't know if you need to rush headlong back into capacity-adding projects,” Pietrucha said.

Agency officials are looking at other, more cost-effective ways to ease congestion and make roads safer, such as coordinating the timing of traffic signals or adding turning lanes to keep cars moving on busy corridors.

Dan Cessna, chief executive for PennDOT's District 11, which includes Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties, said the region's largest capacity-adding project will add an interchange along Route 28 at 31st Street at a cost of $36.4 million.

While PennDOT pulled back, however, the Turnpike Commission pushed ahead with projects, pumping about $2 billion into construction projects. Most of the work addressed widening the toll highway. To date, crews have rebuilt more than 100 miles.

The Turnpike's debt jumped from $2.6 billion in 2007 to more than $8 billion, leading to annual toll increases.

Schoch, a member of the turnpike commission, said it's unlikely that PennDOT will return to 2001 levels of funding for capacity-adding projects. But he said several major projects could move forward because of the adopted funding plan — including hundreds of millions of dollars of improvements planned for corridors such as U.S. Route 322, which crosses the state from the Ohio border at Crawford County to Chester in Delaware County, and Interstate 83, which runs from Harrisburg to Baltimore.

A couple of road projects are proposed in Pittsburgh as part of development projects.

About 1½ miles of roads will be built to accommodate Almono LP's plan to redevelop the 178-acre former LTV Steel Co. site along the Monongahela River in Hazelwood. That and other infrastructure work would be paid for with the help of an $80 million tax-increment financing plan, or TIF.

The Buncher Co. would build nearly a mile of roadway as part of its proposed project to redevelop land along the Allegheny River in the Strip District, where it plans to build a public plaza and about $450 million in retail, office and residential development.

Work has begun on a 3,700-foot road through Buncher's proposed development area between 11th and 21st streets. Buncher would not say how much it will cost but said it is privately funded. Ultimately, the road would be turned over to the city and become a public street, along with extensions of 13th, 15th and 17th streets.

Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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