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Transportation weighs on Western Pennsylvania

| Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011

Allegheny County voters appear to be more concerned about Pennsylvania's glaring transportation needs than people elsewhere in the state, based on results of a poll conducted for the Tribune-Review.

"We face serious problems," said Jim Roddey, a former county executive and a former Port Authority chairman tapped for Gov.-elect Tom Corbett's transition transportation committee.

A Susquehanna Polling & Research survey found that 34 percent of county voters think fixing roads and bridges and improving the state's overall transportation system should be priorities for Corbett and state legislators. That was the highest percentage among eight regions analyzed in the poll of 800 voters, conducted from Dec. 27 to Sunday. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.

It could be that Allegheny County drivers use roads and bridges that are, on average, in worse shape than those elsewhere, and the county's mass transit agency has the most dire financial problems.

About 30 percent of the area's bridges are structurally deficient, and 22 percent of roads are in poor condition, compared to deterioration statewide of 22.5 percent and 15 percent, respectively, PennDOT findings show. The Port Authority is grappling with a deficit approaching $50 million and retiree health costs that are four times higher than those of Philadelphia's SEPTA, even though that agency is four times larger.

It's not a rosy picture statewide. The state's Transportation Advisory Committee said last spring that an additional $3.5 billion a year is needed to fund transportation adequately.

How will the governor's mansion and the Legislature, which will both be controlled by Republicans, address the problems while facing a budget deficit projected to be between $4 billion and $5 billion?

"We have no idea what the (Corbett) administration is going to do. There have been no smoke signals at all," said Rep. Rick Geist of Altoona, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Corbett hand-picked a 400-member transition team to examine state agencies and make recommendations. One of the team's 17 committees is focused on transportation and infrastructure.

"We've got to find extra revenue without raising taxes," said Roddey, who headed a regional look at transportation issues.

Roddey coordinated interviews with officials from Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Port Authority, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, Pittsburgh International Airport and the Port of Pittsburgh Commission and used the information to author a report completed last month. It will be merged into a larger, statewide report that will be given to Corbett before his Jan. 18 inauguration, Roddey said.

Roddey wouldn't discuss specifics of the report, citing a confidentiality agreement.

But Roddey in the past advocated a series of cost-cutting transportation reforms, such as dissolving the Turnpike Commission and putting it under PennDOT; revisiting Interstate 80 tolling as a means to generate money for its maintenance and to free up money for other transportation needs; finding legislative ways to deal with Port Authority's high legacy costs; and requiring the transit agency to contract out a certain percentage of services in order to qualify for state funding.

Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said "everything is on the table" — that is, everything but imposing new taxes. Outgoing Gov. Ed Rendell proposed increasing motor-vehicle fees and taxing oil companies' profits as a way to generate up to $1 billion a year for transportation, but Harley said Corbett won't consider that.

He said ideas Corbett intends to pursue include determining whether public-private partnerships could spur transportation development; moving state police funding from the state's motor-license fund to the general budget; or creating a highway trust fund that would generate interest money for transportation needs.

Harley said Corbett plans to name his transportation secretary next week. He will deliver his budget address March 8.

"We've got to be creative in finding ways to address the transportation funding crisis. It's an enormously expensive task. It will be a priority," Harley said.

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