No Smooth Trips as PA Highway Maintenance Falls Behind

Wed August 10, 2005 - Northeast Edition

PHILADELPHIA (AP) An intrepid motorist hoping to drive all 40,000 mi. of Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges would travel far enough to circumnavigate the earth more than one and a half times.

The cost of making the trip a smooth ride? That would be out of this world.

State transportation officials said bringing all those roads and bridges up to standard right now would mean ringing up an impossible-to-swallow tab of $6.5 billion.

As Pennsylvanians prepare to hit the road for another summer driving season, the state finds itself in an uphill battle against nature, time and money as it tries to keep up with a never-ending list of construction needs. Critics said misplaced priorities and pork-barrel projects have made matters worse, and that motorists end up paying the price — with longer commutes and bumpy rides that drive up maintenance costs.

The state wants to put 80 percent to 85 percent of its transportation dollars into maintenance but is falling short, spending 70 percent to 80 percent, said Gary Hoffman, Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary of highway administration.

“Inflation has eroded away our buying power,” Hoffman said, noting that bids are running approximately 6 percent higher each year. “That means we’re falling a little bit farther behind every year.”

A recent study by TRIP, a nonprofit national transportation research group, used federal transportation data to determine that four out of 10 roadways in the metropolitan Philadelphia area had pavement in substandard condition, and two out of 10 in the Pittsburgh region.

One of the biggest challenges, Hoffman said, is the state’s harsh winters. Costs associated with winter maintenance services totaled $174.8 million in 2004-2005.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) also is trying in a number of areas to shave costs, looking at the number of trucks in its fleet and how it uses materials, Hoffman said.

Last year alone, PennDOT spent approximately $1.3 billion on new projects, while putting $1.1 billion toward maintenance. The agency uses a regimented system to prioritize projects, along with technology it believes will best withstand harsh winters and hot summers.

Some feel that the agency could do better.

Janet Milkman, executive director of the conservation group Thousand Friends of Pennsylvania, said the state needs to be more careful about where it spends its transportation money.

In some cases, Milkman said, the state is putting money into rural areas where roads aren’t needed as badly as in urban areas. Her case in point is Interstate 99 near State College, a highway that has been criticized as an example of pork-barrel spending.

“We got, at least in that case, a road to nowhere,” she said. “It goes through a very unpopulated part of the state.”

Maintenance backlogs are a problem that the state needs to work harder to reduce, she said.

Poor-quality roads ultimately end up costing drivers money, according to the TRIP study. That research found that Philadelphia area drivers pay $486 a year more for vehicle maintenance, and Pittsburgh area drivers $370 more, as a result of driving on substandard roads.

“The damage caused by poor roads is borne by the private sector,” said Frank Moretti, director of research at TRIP. “It would cost significantly less to go ahead and pay enough in terms of motorist fees to go out there and resurface the roads.”

The state, for its part, knows that more work needs to be done.

Hoffman said that his agency gets condition ratings on all of Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges every two years. Inspectors drive the roads using bumper-mounted lasers to test the roughness of the roads, and taking video, look for cracking, ruts and other problems.

The problem, however, often ends up being the ability to keep up with all the maintenance — and having the money to pay for it. “Most of the time it’s not enough,” Hoffman said.

PennDOT estimated that bringing all of its bridges up to standards right now — so none was structurally deficient or functionally obsolete — would cost approximately $4 billion, followed by $500 million in maintenance each year to maintain that level. In terms of roads, the agency said it would cost $2.5 billion to bring everything up to current standards right now, followed by $2.5 billion a year afterward to maintain that level.

Money for the state’s road projects comes from gas-tax revenues, federal funding, registration and license fees. The gas tax is currently 30 cents a gallon and accounts for more than one-third of the money for PennDOT’s projects each year, or $1.05 billion in 2003-2004.

PennDOT funding does not go toward the operation and maintenance of the 531-mi. Pennsylvania Turnpike, which is owned and operated by a separate entity, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. Operation and maintenance of the turnpike is paid for by tolls.

Catherine Rossi, an AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman, said the state must get more creative in how it funds roads. Specifically, she was critical of plans to rescue the state’s troubled transit agencies by diverting money intended for road projects.

A $344-million bailout plan, which will be implemented July 1, unless Gov. Ed Rendell and the Legislature agree on an alternative, will mean less money for highway and bridge work in rural areas. It was brought about because of funding crises that threatened state transit agencies.

“Pennsylvania needs to take a longer-term, deeper view of transportation funding,” Rossi said. “That money has been sorely needed for maintenance and construction.”

The state also came under fire in recent years for the mixed reviews of a pavement technology called Superpave. With Superpave, pavement makers adjust the chemical formula of hot mix — comprising crushed stone, sand and asphalt — based on climate and traffic density in the area.

Because of incorrect usage of the Superpave process, potholes initially became problems on some roads. In the mid- to late-1990s, problems developed on I-279 near Pittsburgh, Route 15 in Tioga and Union counties, Route 422 in Indiana County and other roads.

But state officials said they and their crews now have the technology figured out.

Of approximately 500 Superpave projects the state has done in the past five years, only approximately 15 have had problems, agency officials said.

“It was just a learning curve,” Steve Chizmar, PennDOT spokesman, said.

Nevertheless, some drivers, road critics and other groups remain frustrated.

AAA Mid-Atlantic recently polled more than 1,300 drivers in the five-county Philadelphia area and found that 45 percent believed Pennsylvania’s roads were maintained “somewhat worse or much worse” than other states. Thirty-nine percent said they were maintained “much better or somewhat better,” while 8 percent said they were maintained approximately the same; 8 percent said they didn’t know.

A statewide survey conducted by the Pennsylvania AAA Federation in December 2004 found that 47 percent of respondents considered the state’s roadways to be “fair,” while 25 percent rated them “poor;” 28 percent rated them “good” and 1 percent said they were “excellent.”

Laura Crackel, managing editor of Overdrive, a national trucking magazine, said 392 readers responding to a poll published in December ranked Pennsylvania’s roads the worst in the nation. But readers also took note of the state’s maintenance efforts, finding Pennsylvania had the second-most improved roadways, behind Arkansas.

“A lot of what they complained about is like potholes and roughness, or construction and traffic that makes their days longer or harder to deal with,” Crackel said. “Sitting in a truck for eight hours, they get tired of all the be-dump, be-dump, be-dump, de-bump.”

Retired trucker George Hames remembers that feeling all too well.

He passed through the state many a time on long hauls out of New England, and remembers Pennsylvania’s roads as being some of the worst.

Hames, who lives near Bangor, ME, offered some words of caution for travelers hitting Pennsylvania roads this summer.

“By the time you have six, seven hours of that stuff, you’re just beat,” Hames said. “You just could never relax.”