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Pa. Transportation Planners Face Funding Decision

Pennsylvania's landmark transportation legislation will allow the state to be more ambitious and add new roads.

Mon December 16, 2013 - Northeast Edition

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) The 127-page transportation legislation signed into law culminated years of planning and presents an imposing set of challenges for Pennsylvania’s transportation planners.

The law will ramp up over five years to raise at least an extra $2.3 billion annually — or about 40 percent more — to build and repair roads and bridges and underwrite mass transit systems.

It should go a long way toward modernizing transportation infrastructure across the state.

It also created programs and changed rules regarding how major public works projects are planned and executed in the nation’s sixth most populous state.

PennDOT must decide if it wants to borrow money early on. Additionally, planners debating how to use the new money will have to balance the competing demands of aging infrastructure with economic development and congestion.

There seems to be consensus that Pennsylvania has more than enough needs to exhaust the billions of dollars that will pour in from the law’s sharp increase in gasoline taxes and higher fees on motorists.

But information about what exactly it will pay, and when, is still emerging.

PennDOT executive deputy secretary Brad Mallory said his agency plans to provide guidance soon on how much of the funding will be available in various parts of the state.

Mallory said transportation planning that has tended to focus on preserving the existing system can now be more ambitious and add new roads or lanes.

“If you’ve got enough money to adequately address your bridges, it’s not such a bad idea to support your economy a little bit and economic development issues as well." Mallory said.

The law establishes new approaches to planning and funding bridge repairs and construction, always on the minds of county officials, said Doug Hill of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

One component expands on a pilot program to bundle bridge projects that are located near one another, saving money on design and construction, while another authorizes counties to add $5 to the cost of vehicle registrations to fund local improvements.

“It’s a new concept,’’ Hill said. “It’s not something we’ve set down yet with PennDOT in detail to determine how they plan to administer it."

Hill said counties also are keenly interested in an incentive for mass transit agencies to study consolidation and millions of dollars being made available annually for “multimodal" improvements that will generally require a 30 percent local match in cash.

“We’ll take a little bit of time on transition, a little bit of uncertainty in the short term,"Hill said. “We know ultimately it’s what we need to keep our bridges, get our bridges back into good repair."

For local governments, the law will increase by more than 60 percent the state money they get to build and maintain roads, which is known as the liquid fuels payment. It also helps upgrade and sequence traffic lights, which are locally owned and maintained, and increases funding for dirt and gravel roads from $4 million to $35 million annually.

“It won’t take care of the problem, but it will make a difference," said Elam Herr with the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors.

Pennsylvania has a system of rural and municipal planning organizations that meet regularly to determine, working with PennDOT, which projects should be undertaken over the next 12 years. The 12-year plan is updated on a rolling basis every two years, so with the infusion of new money, next year’s version will get a great deal of attention.

Critical needs, structurally deficient bridges, safety-related projects and deferred maintenance generally get priority as planners map out which work will make it into the Transportation Improvement Plan, the name of the 12-year plan’s first four years.

“It’s sort of a question of, ’What do you do first?’" said Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which encompasses Philadelphia and its ring counties. “But at the same time, given that this money provides a long-term funding source, I think folks will begin to look at future investments, opportunities for new capacity."

Amy Kessler, a transportation planner with a six-county regional planning commission based in Ridgway in northwestern Pennsylvania, said some decisions are awaiting news from PennDOT about the area’s financial allocation.

“We’re going to focus on the trunk of our tree and maintaining our existing infrastructure," Kessler said, referring to the most heavily traveled corridors that connect populations and move freight. The new money, she said, is “going to allow us the ability to do long-range planning for our infrastructure versus a Band-Aid approach, year-to-year."

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