Auditor general: Billions in transportation funding diverted to Pennsylvania state police
Pennsylvanians pay the nation’s highest gas tax — 57.6 cents per gallon — and that money is supposed to help pay for road projects and general infrastructure improvement.
An audit of the past six years, however, shows that more than $4 billion in PennDOT revenues from the state’s Motor License Fund has been diverted to other areas of state government, including $2.45 billion to the Pennsylvania State Police to help subsidize police coverage in communities without local law enforcement.
And while officials from Gov. Tom Wolf’s office acknowledged that the funding diversion is an ongoing issue, efforts to remedy it have not been received favorably by state lawmakers.
“There’s this inherent deal,” state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said at a news conference Thursday in Harrisburg. “Yes, we’re going to pay this high gas tax, but that money is going to go toward improving our roads. And when people see that not all of it is going toward those projects, that’s when people get upset.”
Under the state constitution, proceeds from the Motor License Fund are to be used solely for the construction, reconstruction, maintenance and repair of and safety on public highways and bridges.
Pennsylvania has 2,829 bridges rated as structurally deficient, according to PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards. The state has 82 bridges that are more than 65 years old, and Richards said about 250 bridges move into the “poor” category each year due to age and wear.
“We have an urgent need for sustainable transportation funding in Pennsylvania,” Richards said. “The federal government is a critical partner, especially for interstates.”
Pennsylvania has one of the largest interstate highway systems in the nation, with more than 1,300 miles managed by PennDOT, Richards said.
Some state infrastructure has been addressed through the Rapid Bridge Replacement Program, a public-private partnership. As of April, 544 of 558 bridges that were part of that project have been completed and reopened. In 2018, Richards said, nearly 750 bridges were repaired, rebuilt or preserved.
DePasquale noted that he is not suggesting taking revenue from law enforcement.
“Let me clear: state police need to be funded,” he said. “But this money should be going to PennDOT projects like these structurally deficient bridges. While the state police need funding, I think people will be upset that this money is being diverted to purposes for which it was not necessarily intended.”
Wolf’s office has put forth multiple fee-based proposals to help fund state police used for local policing. The latest is a sliding-scale, per-capita fee based on a municipality’s size. The range would go from $8 per person for a community with fewer than 2,000 residents to $166 per person in municipalities with more than 20,000 residents.
Hempfield Township is one of nearly 2,500 municipalities — and the largest, with a population of 42,300 — across Pennsylvania without a local police department. Other municipalities in Westmoreland County that rely on state police rather than local police include Derry, South Huntingdon and Unity townships.
East Pittsburgh in Allegheny County is temporarily relying on state police coverage after disbanding its department last year.
Officials estimated in 2017 that it costs state police almost $600 million a year to provide services to municipalities without a full-time force.
Under Wolf’s latest proposal, Hempfield could pay almost $7 million — or nearly half of the township’s operating budget.
The governor twice proposed a $25-per-resident fee for such municipalities, but neither effort found enough support in the state legislature.
“The impact of the Motor License Fund transfer to the Pennsylvania State Police on other projects is a problem that has existed for years,” said Wolf’s spokesman J.J. Abbott. “However, it is important to note that the budget now caps and decreases this transfer each year. Gov. Wolf has proposed a specific plan to address this funding gap for the last few years. We appreciate the auditor general’s support in this effort, and his acknowledgment of the improvements made under this administration.”
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter .