Friday, July 11, 2014

Pa. official makes pitch for road funds

Secretary Barry J. Schoch visits Hazleton to tout shared projects and proposed SB 1.

June 15. 2013 12:46AM

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HAZLETON — Pennsylvania’s top transportation officials gathered before business and government leaders Friday afternoon to share two visions of the future.

In one, bipartisan support leads to passage of Senate Bill 1, a $2.5 billion transportation funding measure that they say would help pay for desperately needed repairs to roads and bridges — as well as new projects, such as a $20 million plan to extend Route 424 in the area of the Humboldt Industrial Park, that will foster economic growth.

The other possibility? A rust-tainted status quo in which many aging spans must be weight-restricted or closed rather than fixed, potholes continue to pockmark the roads, transit service levels are are slashed and tens of thousands of construction and engineering jobs vanish.

“I don’t think it takes a lot of context to see what the right decision is,” state Transportation Secretary Barry J. Schoch said.

Whatever happens to Senate Bill 1 in the House this month, Schoch and Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission CEO Mark Compton were able to reveal at least one tangible element of improved transportation policy, in the form of a pioneering deal under which the two agencies will save $1.5 million by sharing winter road-treatment materials at neighboring maintenance facilities in Dupont.

“Our cultures have changed,” Compton said of the recently approved deal, the first of several statewide in which PennDOT and the Turnpike Commission will work together and share materials to eliminate costly duplication.

The two facilities were a good fit for such a deal, being located “across the street” from one another, Compton said. It means Turnpike officials won’t have to build a new salt storage dome or replace its brine-making facility, while PennDOT will avoid the $200,000 cost of new salt and brine facilities. A further $300,000 in savings will come through sharing other resources, Compton said.

While the PennDOT-Turnpike deal is the fruit of a collaboration initiative begun two years ago, the future of added funding under SB 1 is a battle that will occupy state lawmakers over the next two weeks.

The state Senate passed the bill by a 45-1 vote on June 5. It was the subject of a hearing Thursday before the House Transportation Committee, where some speakers raised concerns that the bill would create hardships for consumers because it would raise funds through increased fuel taxes, as well as increased fees for vehicle registrations, driver’s licenses and a new traffic-violation surcharge.

The extra $2 per week borne by the average driver, who drives 12,000 miles per year, amounts to less than the price of one gallon of gas, Schoch said.

State Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Avoca, a member of the transportation committee, attended Friday’s press conference outside a PennDOT storage facility, where he warned that ailing infrastructure such as Scranton’s problem-plagued Harrison Avenue Bridge offers a vision of the type of problems that will continue to plague the state if funding isn’t secured.

Carroll said he remains hopeful that the bill will make it to the House floor for consideration before the June 30 deadline.

State Sen. John Gordner, R-Berwick, spoke about how upgrades to Route 424 would improve traffic flow and pave the way for business growth through better access to the Humboldt Industrial Park.

As he has in print and in appearances elsewhere, Schoch reiterated the grim catalogue of consequences he predicts will arise if the bill fails: 1,200 to 1,500 more bridges facing weight restrictions this year, creating hassles and extra fuel costs for drivers and businesses; the loss of 12,000 private-sector construction jobs, most of which are located in this state; and a 15 percent cut to transit services across the state.

“This is not a political issue. It’s not a Republican issue. It’s not a Democratic issue,” Schoch said. “It’s a leadership issue for Pennsylvania.”

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