Pennsylvania‚??s budget choices will be felt in Northeastern Pennsylvania for years as shrinking funds for transportation projects mean motorists will drive on rough roads and construction timelines will stretch.
Earlier this month, the state Transportation Commission downgraded its spending plan for the next dozen years.
The result: the $41.6 billion transportation improvement fund is 19 percent lower than the plan the commission approved just two years ago and down 38 percent when compared to the long term plan adopted in 2008.
In Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, the cuts are more pronounced. The new plan decreases funding by 24 percent from 2010 ‚?? dropping from $906 million to $688 million.
The recently approved 12-year-plan allocates funds for the state‚??s airports, highways, bridges, railroads and public transit systems.
Sue Hazelton, the portfolio manager for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation‚??s District 4, said even though the long-term plan will see a 24-percent budget cut, no projects will be eliminated.
Instead, James May, the local PennDOT spokesman, said, ‚??Whenever funding is reduced, we look at compensating in two ways. First, we may reduce the scope of the project. So, for example, where we may have looked at possibly replacing an entire bridge, we will now go back and see if maybe we can simply replace the superstructure.
‚??Second, we may need to expand the time frame in which we complete our projects. So maybe a project that was in design and projected to start 10 years from now may start in 11 years. However, all the projects that are currently in process ‚?? such as the airport access road and the South Valley Parkway Bypass -- will continue as planned.‚?Ě
The state is required to adopt a new 12-year-plan every two years to serve as a blueprint PennDOT. No capital project can move forward unless it is included in the program.
Funding has dropped over the last three 12-year-plan approvals. In 2008, the commission adopted a 12-year-plan with $67.9 billion. In 2010, the dollar amount was down to $51.623 billion.
Now it is $41.6 billion.
The reduction in a state that consistently ranks at or near the top of national lists of deficient bridges will make maintaining those structures and other dilapidated roadways even more challenging.
It‚??s the era of doing more with less, although the state is working with the certainty of guaranteed federal funding for the next two years ‚?? something that hadn‚??t been in place for a few years.
It‚??s an issue state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, knows all too well.
‚??We‚??re beyond the crisis stage with transportation in Pennsylvania,‚?Ě said Yudichak, who has been lobbying without much success for a special session on transportation. ‚??We‚??ve put it off way too long.‚?Ě
In June, after 27 months of 90-day stopgap funding measures, Congress passed the ‚??Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century‚?Ě plan.
The $118 billion federal measure stabilizes federal transportation funding for two full years. Pennsylvania‚??s cut of the pie is $1.6 billion in each of the two years.
That‚??s approximately $100 million less than previous years‚?? allocations.
There was some good news from the federal government on Friday, however.
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced that more than $473 million in unspent infrastructure project earmarks from 2003-06 will be freed up and states will be able to decide how to spend their share, which will be $28.5 million in Pennsylvania.
The newly adopted 12-year program, which takes effect Oct. 1, anticipates just over $9 billion being available for highway and bridge projects in the first four years. Public transit is in line for $5.4 billion; aviation, $360 million; and the state‚??s rail-freight systems are expected to receive $204 million.
‚??PennDOT is working very hard to make the most of every available dollar,‚?Ě said department Secretary and Transportation Commission Chairman Barry J. Schoch. ‚??This plan, which was developed in partnership with all regions of Pennsylvania, focuses on preserving our current infrastructure while living with the reality of flat or reduced federal and state revenues.‚?Ě
Taking perhaps the biggest hit, from a percentage standpoint, is public transportation, which saw a $3.8 billion, or 19.5 percent, decrease.
The new 12-year-plan calls for $15.7 billion for public transit, which includes organizations such as the Luzerne County Transportation Authority, Hazleton Public Transit and the County of Lackawanna Transit System. Those systems will see funding cut from $93 million in the 2010 plan to $52 million included in the latest plan, a 44 percent slice.
PennDOT spokesman Michael Taluto said that in June 2010, there were 161 structurally deficient bridges in Luzerne County. As of this June that number climbed by one.
As recently as five years ago, the state was fixing about 500 bridges a year, Steve Chizmar, another PennDOT spokesman, said.
That dropped to 300 by 2010. This current plan brings the average down to about 200.
Typically about 300 bridges become structurally deficient in the state each year, on average, Chizmar said.
‚??You start to lose ground on structurally deficient bridges after we started to gain ground,‚?Ě he said. ‚??Overall, statewide, we‚??ve been making great headway.‚?Ě
But with dwindling federal dollars available and rising construction and materials costs, PennDOT has to make due with the money at hand.
Yudichak noted another long-term issue with putting off projects today for 10 years or more.
‚??Each year that goes by, construction costs get higher and higher and taxpayer dollars don‚??t go as far,‚?Ě the senator said.
‚??There‚??s only so many dollars in the pot and the reality is you have to decide which projects will make the most impact on the area,‚?Ě Chizmar said. ‚??Safety is still our number one priority and we have to focus efforts on existing infrastructure rather than building new roads.‚?Ě
There are more than 115 Luzerne County projects listed in PennDOT‚??s 12-year plan. Among the larger ones are:
‚?Ę $41.5 million for LCTA, which includes tires, land acquisition and battery packs
‚?Ę $32 million for bridge replacements on I-81 in Laflin and Jenkins Township
‚?Ę $23.7 million for the South Valley Parkway project in Hanover Township and Nanticoke
‚?Ę $18.2 million for an alignment to the access road at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport
‚?Ę $11.7 million for the replacement of the Route 115 bridge over I-81 in Plains Township
‚?Ę $11.5 million for restoration of an I-81 bridge in Plains Township