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Transportation Investment Key to Quality of Life in PA

Wed December 15, 2004 - Northeast Edition
Colleen Stoker

A healthy transportation system is vital to the prosperity of the Keystone State. It gets people to and from jobs, transports goods and services, decreases congestion and increases safety; quite simply, it is the key to quality of life in Pennsylvania. But our roads and bridges are deteriorating and transportation funding is eroding.

The Keystone State Transportation Funding Coalition is a broad-based collaboration among labor, business, local governments, road and bridge builders, public transit, aviation, materials producers and suppliers, environmentalists, farmers and homebuilders that supports increased investment in Pennsylvania’s transportation infrastructure as part of a comprehensive program to promote economic development.

The group recently released a report on the funding needs of the Keystone State’s transportation system titled, “Pennsylvania’s Transportation Infrastructure Funding Needs.” The report unlocks the truths about Pennsylvania’s aging infrastructure, its funding needs and how investment in transportation can serve as an economic stimulus for the state. As Rep. Rick Geist, chairman of the Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee said, “Infrastructure’s the backbone of the economy. If you don’t have a good infrastructure, you don’t have a good economy.”

Studies cited in the report show that for every $1 billion invested in highway infrastructure 42,000 jobs are created, with two-thirds of those jobs being outside the construction industry. Plus, that level of investment generates millions of dollars in state and local tax revenue. As an example, completion of the Mon-Fayette Expressway’s initial 12 mi. attracted 14 companies, $32 million in private investments and 694 jobs to Washington and Fayette counties. This is just the shot in the arm that Pennsylvania’s lagging economy needs.

“If the state of Pennsylvania wants to be a major economic player in the Northeast, it’s got to rebuild its highways and also to have an opportunity to maintain the trucking industry and help mass transit,” said Bill George, of the AFL-CIO, who explained that the union is involved with the coalition because infrastructure investment creates and maintains jobs.

The report states how Pennsylvania has the third-lowest population growth in the nation, as employment growth is 8.5 percent below the national average. Pennsylvania is losing young and educated workers at an alarming rate, as only the southeast region of the state exceeds the national income level.

A new economy, however, cannot be built on a crumbling infrastructure. Good quality, safe, uncongested roads and transportation options are needed to get people to and from jobs and transport goods and services. Yet according to the report, the infrastructure needs in Pennsylvania are great. Current statewide spending on all transportation infrastructures is $5.2 billion annually, but this is $1.6 billion less than the recommended investment needed to adequately preserve the infrastructure and $4.7 billion below what it would take to expand it.

At the current level, Pennsylvania is falling behind in both adequately preserving its infrastructure and expanding it to meet future needs. Yet, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) announced on March 25, 2004, that it was going to trim the 12-Year Transportation Program, resulting in several major projects going unfunded.

Additional funding is needed to preserve Pennsylvania’s infrastructure because of its age, the increase in the number of vehicles and miles traveled on its roads, Pennsylvania’s climate, lack of resources at the local level and the amount of heavy-truck traffic on its roads.

Between 1993 and 2001, truck traffic on Pennsylvania’s interstate highways increased from 5.11 million to 7.27 million mi. traveled.

The Keystone State has the fifth-largest highway system in the United States and third- largest bridge program. Pennsylvania has essentially the same amount of miles of state-maintained roads (40,050 mi.) as all of New York, New Jersey and the New England States combined (40,092 mi.). Yet, according to the report, Pennsylvania spends approximately 68 percent less in capital outlays for construction and more than a third less for maintenance.

“That’s a major responsibility for the Commonwealth to maintain, so we need to have resources not only to maintain their existing system, but to allow us resources to direct deficiencies and put new roads where they’re needed for economic development in order to attract jobs and job opportunities to Pennsylvania,” said Sen. J. Barry Stout, a Pennsylvania State Transportation Committee member.

The report documents what effect these issues and a lack of funding are having on Pennsylvania’s transportation system. More than one-third of the state’s 33,381 bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, and more than one in 10 may need to be replaced because the average age of a bridge in Pennsylvania is 50 years. To fix every bridge in Pennsylvania would cost $5.5 billion.

With one of the nation’s largest rural populations, Pennsylvania also has its share of dirt and gravel roads. These roads, if not maintained properly can cause dust and sediment pollution. The Dirt and Gravel Road Program is an innovative and highly successful effort to fund environmentally sound maintenance of unpaved roadway sections that have been identified as causing pollution problems.

By increasing the budget for dirt and gravel roads to $12 million, the timeframe for improving environmental quality of the 11,476 specific road segments identified statewide would occur within 15 years instead of the estimated 47.

These rural areas also are the home of 59,000 farms, one of Pennsylvania’s major industries, generating $4.1 billion. But the farming industry is working at a competitive disadvantage because of outmoded roads and closed bridges due to a lack of transportation funding.

“We have a lot of rural transportation issues with townships that are not able to keep up with their infrastructure, they’re lowering weight limits on their bridges and their roads, and that subsequently leads to farmers not being able to do a number of things whether its getting the milk truck into the farm or getting some of their crops out to market,” said Kristen Rotz, regulatory reform director for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

Transit in the Keystone State also is suffering from a lack of transportation funding. Without a dedicated source of dependable funding, local transit systems continue to find themselves struggling to meet operating expenses. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) faces a $70-million shortfall and the Transit Authority of Pittsburgh has indicated it will need $30 million more, while Berks Area Reading Transportation Authority (BARTA) in Reading will need to raise fares by 8 percent.

In response to the Pittsburgh Port Authority’s financial crisis, the worst in their 40-year history, Chief Executive Officer Paul Skoutelas said, “The problem has to be addressed in Harrisburg. We regard this as crucial to the future of Pennsylvania.”

An editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette commented on the financial problems of both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia’s transit authorities saying, “It’s a system that works, particularly in an urban setting, and it’s a system that must be preserved. Pennsylvania, however, has ignored public transit at its peril … Friends of mass transit, both Democratic and Republican, must step forward in Harrisburg to increase funding reliability.”

Aviation in Pennsylvania, despite receiving funding from a jet fuel tax, is facing money issues as well. With the jet fuel tax having not been updated since 1984, aviation funding is dwindling; between 2001 and 2002, total revenues generated from that tax dropped 23 percent.

Fuel taxes are part of the funding problem for Pennsylvania’s transportation system. Gas taxes provide 58 percent of Pennsylvania’s state funding. The current rate of 25.9 cents per gallon has not been increased since 1997. With inflation, the purchasing power of the gas tax has dropped by 17.1 percent. This means that $100 today can purchase $82.90 worth of the goods and services it could purchase in 1997. Some states combat this problem by indexing, or automatically increasing, the tax to inflation.

“It’s very vital for the Pennsylvania community to be competitive, so we should be planning to put money where our mouth is and it’s going to cost nickels and dimes at the gas pump to do that,” George said.

Pennsylvanians pay a cost for this lack of adequate transportation funding. The Road Information Program (TRIP), in its November 2003 report cited by the coalition, estimated that inadequate highways and roads cost Pennsylvania motorists $7.4 billion every year because of additional traffic accidents, lost time and increased wear and tear on their vehicles. This is an average of $812 per driver.

A lack of transportation funding can cost lives as well. In 2003, 1,577 people were killed on Pennsylvania’s highways and roadways. It is estimated that safety improvements on highways can reduce traffic fatalities by as much as 15 percent a year.

Despite the multiple problems caused by inadequate transportation funding, many people believe adding roads does not solve problems, but causes air pollution and sprawl.

“Pennsylvania’s Transportation Infrastructure Funding Needs” dispels these myths citing how roadway improvements can create a time savings of 19 minutes per trip. As far as pollution issues, today’s cars achieve a 97-percent reduction in tailpipe emissions compared to those of the 1960s. In fact, it would take 20 cars today to supply the pollution one car did 30 years ago. Also, road improvements can reduce carbon monoxide emissions by 45 percent and smog-forming emissions by 44 percent.

Another myth regarding the addition of road lanes is that it causes sprawl. People choose to live in suburbs even when it means a longer commute. Factors like prior density, schools, taxes, sewer and water, and community receptiveness exert far more influence over new development than building new highways according to a cited study.

While Pennsylvania’s transportation network needs increased funding, there is no single best-source solution. The coalition’s report cites a Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC) report that proposes a minimum 8-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase, indexing transportation funding to inflation, increasing transit’s share of sales tax revenues, expanding the State Infrastructure Bank, increasing funding to local governments, phasing in more interstate tolling, advancing project streamlining and encouraging more regional cooperation.

The best way to fund the Commonwealth’s $17.5-billion transportation needs may be uncertain. However, one thing is for sure, the key to Pennsylvania’s quality of life is transportation. In order to make the Keystone State an enjoyable and prosperous place to live, increased investment in transportation is needed. As Sen. Stout said, “[Transportation investment is] an investment in the future, it’s one of the best things, an investment for the future for our children and our grandchildren so they’ll have opportunities in Pennsylvania, safe opportunities.”

(Colleen Stoker, TRIAD Inc.)

(This article appears courtesy of “Highway Builder” magazine.)

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