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Pa. road projects safe from feds' transportation funding delays

| Wednesday, July 30, 2014, 11:00 p.m.

State construction projects will continue to get federal money until December even if Congress does not pass a bill that would increase funding temporarily to the nation's nearly empty highway trust fund, PennDOT officials said on Wednesday.

The federal Department of Transportation said reimbursement payments to states will begin being delayed on Friday to ration money from a fund in which expenses are projected to outpace revenue next month. PennDOT relies on about $1.5 billion of federal transportation money annually, about one-third of the $4.4 billion it spends on road and bridge work.

The payment delays, if they last for months, could hold back projects in other states, but PennDOT officials credit this state's transportation funding law, passed in November as Act 89, with providing some buffer from federal budget woes. The law hikes wholesale gasoline taxes and vehicle-related fees.

“We expect that because of Act 89 we wouldn't see project impacts until the end of the year. We will continue to monitor and evaluate any reduced reimbursements and take appropriate action if necessary, but we're continuing to invest state funds into projects at this time,” PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said. “The longer we go without a resolution in Washington, the prospects rise that the benefits of Act 89 could to be undercut without a federal solution.”

The House and Senate passed dueling versions of temporary funding for the highway trust fund this month. A House version passed two weeks ago for which all 18 Pennsylvania representatives voted would fund the trust until May; the Senate version passed on Tuesday funds it until December. Neither side has approved the other's bill, and Congress heads for a five-week recess after Friday.

Many industry groups are confident Congress will pass a temporary fix soon but said a longer funding solution is needed.

“We support a long-term fix, and we don't think May is long-term. We'd prefer they come up with something and fix it this year. We're getting into permanent, temporary funding situation,” said Jeff Shoaf, senior director for government affairs with the Associated General Contractors of America. “The way highway programs work ... is that you make priority decisions based revenue streams. This (lack of funding certainty) makes it hard to make good decisions.”

There are competing views on how to fund infrastructure repairs.

Emily Goff, a policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative policy group, agreed that the short-term patch does not address the nation's needs.

“We'd like to see a real honest debate of thinking outside the box; devolving more highway programs to the state level and the private sector,” Goff said. “We recognize that most transportation challenges today are regional or local in nature, not federal.”

Lawmakers say the problem is basic: The 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gasoline tax has not changed since 1993, while costs have risen and cars have become more fuel-efficient.

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said he likes the Senate version better because it keeps pressure on lawmakers to come up with a long-term solution.

“The idea of kicking the can down the road until May is a bad idea. This is crazy. Our infrastructure is crumbling around us. ... I'm a firm believer that the Highway Trust Fund should be funded by user fees,” said Doyle, who said an increase in the federal gas tax is one option.

Susan Mosychuk, chief of staff for Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said in a statement that a gas tax hike was not necessary because her boss supports a plan to direct revenues from increased offshore drilling for infrastructure repairs.

“We're pressing on House leadership to take up this alternative approach,” Mosychuk said.

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

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