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Pa. auditor general DePasquale warns of 'red flags' in state's road bill

| Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, 11:38 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale speaks withTrib reporters and editors for a interview at the DL Clark Building on Pittsburgh's North Shore on Thursday December 5, 2013.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said if the state's $2.3 billion transportation infrastructure plan doesn't direct spending to neglected bridges and critical infrastructure needs, it would raise “red flags” in his office.

“If we're doing this package and the structurally deficient bridges aren't the first ones getting the money, OK, something's wrong,” DePasquale said.

DePasquale, a Pittsburgh native and former York County legislator, discussed his year in office and some upcoming audits in an interview with Tribune-Review reporters and editors on Thursday.

Legislation that Gov. Tom Corbett signed in November authorizes up to $2.3 billion in annual transportation spending, ending months of legislative debate. DePasquale said he advocated to end $450 million in yearly payments from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to the state, to ease debt and future toll increases. The transportation plan cuts those payments to $50 million in 2021, PennDOT officials said.

Those contributions, and motorist fees paid to PennDOT, will go toward millions of dollars in improvements to public transportation agencies, including Port Authority of Allegheny County. DePasquale said his office is auditing the agency and he anticipates releasing a report in February.

“If it wasn't for this transportation bill, they were going to have a major problem come January,” he said.

Jim Ritchie, spokesman for Port Authority, said specific figures are not available, but the investments will improve services for riders.

“The legislation will provide service stability for several years and allow Port Authority to think strategically about transit service,” he said in an email.

The bill allocates $40 million for general transportation projects to be determined by the Commonwealth Financing Authority, a state board that includes legislative appointees. Critics consider that money to be akin to “walking around money” to pay for legislative pet projects.

“It gives flexibility to address whatever those regional needs might be, but they are transportation-related,” said Erin Waters-Trasatt, a PennDOT spokeswoman.

DePasquale said he'll be vigilant about that, as well.

“We're certainly going to be monitoring that to make sure those go to appropriate transportation projects,” he said.

As auditor general, DePasquale can decide which state agencies and programs to audit, and conduct mandatory audits at some institutions such as school districts. In early 2014, he anticipates releasing his audit of Department of Environmental Protection water quality controls connected to shale-gas extraction. He'll conduct an audit of some of the state's tax credit and grant programs.

DePasquale, who succeeded former Pittsburgh mayoral candidate and two-term Auditor General Jack Wagner, received a $1.7 million bump in the state budget last year to update technology and equipment. He said the upgrade produced faster audits.

The technology improvements will continue next year, with a system to accept complaints online instead of through a hotline.

State government overall could use similar upgrades, DePasquale said.

“Just by the minimal investment we've made in technology, it's dramatically improving,” he said.

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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