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PennDOT project list doesn't sway tax, fee hike opponents

| Friday, April 4, 2014, 11:56 p.m.

The hefty project to-do list PennDOT announced this week for Western Pennsylvania didn't sway critics of the state's transportation law that hikes vehicle-related fees and wholesale gas taxes to pay to fix aging infrastructure.

“(My opposition) didn't have anything to do with the list of projects. Everybody on the planet wants good and safe bridges. The question was how we're going to pay for it,” said state Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick, who voted against the law. His district is the recipient of one of the largest local projects — a $42 million rehabbing of the Birmingham Bridge.

“I was a proponent of paying for it by other means, such as increasing impact fees on Marcellus shale drilling and putting it toward transportation.”

Still, supporters of the new law, including several local officials and trucking groups, applauded the large list, saying it's a step in the right direction and that the extra fees are necessary to pay for it.

PennDOT's local list is highlighted by the Birmingham Bridge project, a $51 million Parkway West project and work involving more than a dozen small overpasses. Larger weight-restricted bridges, such as the Liberty Bridge and Elizabeth Bridge, did not make this year's list.

“Both Liberty and the Elizabeth Bridge are currently under design. Even if I wanted to start constructing them this year, the designs aren't physically complete,” said PennDOT District 11 Executive Dan Cessna, whose territory includes Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties.

Gene O'Sullivan, CFO of the Jeannette-based Elliott Group, which manufactures 185,000-pound turbines and compressors, said his deliveries must travel an extra 400 miles on occasion because of Pennsylvania's weight-restricted bridges. He supports the new funding law.

“We understand it's going to be a multi-year improvement project. The damage was done over many years. We don't have strong feelings about one project, it's just that we get more options when the road improves, when the bridge improves,” O'Sullivan said. “We're very glad the state is addressing the problem. We supported the whole picture. We understood it had to be paid for.”

The to-do list includes projects across the region, such as $1.59 million for two small bridges on Sunset Drive over Pike Run in West Pike, Washington County.

“My goodness, one of those bridges was down to 3 tons (weight limit). Any improvement will help us out,” said West Pike supervisor Richard Molish, who worried that weight-restricted bridges would hamper growth from Marcellus shale drilling. “Whatever it takes to get things improved here.”

Westmoreland County Commissioner Tyler Courtney praised the projects set to break ground there, including $10.5 million in road improvements in Rostraver and $13.5 million for 40 miles of surface improvements on several state roads in 14 municipalities, but was noncommittal on whether he supported the funding source.

“The projects are a great thing,” Courtney said. “I do support transportation funding, but there were some polarizing views on how to make that happen. Was it worth it? I don't know yet. With the taxes from gas and fees, we haven't felt the impacts yet. There's some realistic gray area.”

For state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, there is no gray area. He thought PennDOT should pay for road and bridge repairs out of existing funding.

“More road and bridge projects doesn't change my belief that it was unnecessary,” Metcalfe said. “PennDOT receives a lot already.”

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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