PennDOT withholds funding plan from public

| Tuesday, June 18, 2013, 1:54 p.m.

The state Department of Transportation built a website that compares competing plans to spend billions of dollars on highways and bridges in new transportation money under proposals the Legislature is considering, but agency officials refuse to release similar information to the public, which will pay for the chosen projects.

The department gave lawmakers access about two weeks ago to the password-protected website, and The Associated Press learned about the site from lawmakers and legislative staff aides. Department officials refused repeated AP requests to detail which highway and bridge projects the agency expects to be funded.

Several senators said they were surprised to hear the website wasn't made public.

“I don't see any good reason why they can't go public with it,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre, said Tuesday. “It's not earth-shattering stuff. It's highways and bridges.”

PennDOT officials have maintained that the plan remains a draft, not final, and cite that as the reason not to make public their plans to spend billions of dollars in tax, fee and fine increases under consideration by lawmakers.

The transportation bill is the state's first in six years, and proponents say it's badly needed. But the time for the public to learn about the projects ahead of a possible bill passage is dwindling. Gov. Tom Corbett is pressing for a plan in less than two weeks.

In a June 5 email to lawmakers, Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said his agency intends to make the website public but did not say when and asked lawmakers not to share the password. He said that would allow lawmakers to contact his agency with issues or concerns prior to its release.

PennDOT's online map shows 10 years of highway and bridge project funding under Corbett's $1.8 billion proposal from February and a $2.5 billion Senate plan that passed June 5 and is under consideration in the House.

Both plans rely primarily on gradually increasing a wholesale gas tax by 28.5 cents a gallon over several years, giving Pennsylvania among the nation's highest fuel tax rates. The Senate plan also would raise money by increasing fees on vehicle registration, driver's licenses and traffic violations.

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