The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 30, 2013

Fewer dollars for road work: In era of budget slashing, PennDOT making do with less

Kathy Mellott

— A poor economy, more fuel efficient vehicles, rising costs for highway construction materials – these are all some of the reasons why little if any new construction will be done on roads and bridges across Pennsylvania this year.

Few member of the Legislature are showing much of a taste to increase taxes.

Municipal officials in Somerset and Cambria counties learned last week during PennDOT’s annual outreach sessions that there will be considerably fewer dollars for highway and bridge maintenance in the 2013 construction season than amounts available four years ago.

In Cambria County, projects in the Johnstown area are getting the lion’s share of the money. Among the projects are completion of slope stabilization along Menoher Boulevard.

Set to go to bid in 2014 is the Goucher Street safety improvement project and work on the Hickory Street Bridge.

In Somerset County, the big project will be the start of the four-lane Route 219 from Somerset to Meyersdale, work that is being undertaken entirely with federal funds.

State dollars will  be used to resurface Route 160 to the Cambria County line, two bridges over the Casselman River and replacement of the Quemahoning Dam Bridge.

The fewer dollars able to purchase less is the story at the state level.  

Projects bid or to be bid in 2013 will not exceed $1.7 billion, according to PennDOT spokesman Steve Chizmar.

Last year, that figure was $2 billion. In 2011, it was $2.2 billion.

The reduced funding comes as materials and maintenance costs are increasing, Chizmar said.

“We’re going to continue to see that number go down unless we see an increase in the bottom line,” Chizmar said. “And, that number doesn’t buy as much as it did even last year.”

Talk of the need for revenue enhancement has been around since the early 2000s. The voices grew louder in 2011 when Gov. Tom Corbett appointed a panel of professionals to identify potential funding sources.

But after the July 2011 release of the report by the Transportation Funding Advisory Commission brought no action, the voices rose a little more.

Many are looking to state leaders in the hopes that April or May could bring legislation that would remove the cap on the Oil Company Franchise Tax, said to be kept artificially low.

Any boost in fees or taxes would be the first since 1997, when the state gas tax went up

10 cents per gallon at the pump.

But two local men attuned to transportation needs and funding statewide aren’t taking any bets on what may happen over the next three months.

If no action is taken to boost taxes or fees by June 30, it may been nothing will be done for the remainder of the state’s fiscal year, said state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont.

Any action likely would need to happen this year, since 2014 is an election year, and a time when members of the Legislature are likely to shy away from tax increases.

Wozniak said PennDOT is past the point of belt tightening; billions of dollars are needed to maintain the state’s bridges and highways. He is proud of the statistic showing 85 cents of every dollar in PennDOT revenue goes to pay a contractor in some form.

What he views as an urgent need for more money for all forms of transportation is not shared by everyone else, especially some Republicans.

“The Senate feels comfortable with it,” he said of removing the cap. “But I’m not so sure of the House. I don’t know if the House has the votes.”

Wozniak, Democratic chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, thinks the legislation to increase revenue will be the most important vote state leaders have taken in 15 years.

Johnstown businessman Robert Gleason, a former member of the state Transportation Commission and chairman of the Republican Party at the state level, is hopeful that as the economy improves, so will PennDOT’s coffers. Increasing taxes or fees is unlikely this year, he said.

“The governor’s plan is a great idea, but I’m not so sure the Legislature will support it,” Gleason said.

One of the biggest concerns is the cost removing the franchise cap will have at the pump.

Getting to that $1.9 billion in additional revenue which could be raised by the action means costs the oil companies will pass on to motorists.

“I don’t hear a drumbeat from the people to increase revenues,” Gleason said. “I feel the government eventually does what the people want it to.”

Current thoughts are that the current $1.25 per gallon cap, when removed, will have the tax determined by the marketplace, Wozniak said.

Estimates are that removing the cap would add 28.5 cents per gallon to the pump price – a figure that could be phased in over a period of five years or more.

“That’s a shocking number,” Wozniak said. “But what is going to make the people less happy is if a bridge falls down. We can’t make bricks without straw.”

When comparing highway conditions of today with 40 years ago when Milton Shapp was governor, things aren’t so bad, said Gleason, who recalls when it was impossible to drive from Westmont to Johnstown without hitting a multitude of potholes.

Improvements are needed, especially to save what Wozniak has seen of crumbling bridge superstructures, and more revenue is the only way to pay the tab.

Adding to the voice for enhanced revenue is the need to jump-start the economy, something that could happen with the 100,000 construction jobs that are estimated with an infusion of money, Wozniak said.

But after a quarter-century in Harrisburg, Wozniak is a realist.

“I don’t wear rose-colored glasses. It’s going to be tough,” he said of any transportation funding package.

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