Pennsylvania motorists may have to steel themselves for even higher prices at the gasoline pumps if the state is to begin driving past its transportation funding crisis.
That was one of the messages to come out of a panel discussion held Friday during the Washington County Chamber of Commerce’s monthly “breakfast briefing” at the Hilton Garden Inn, Southpointe.
During a 45-minute discussion, panelists conceded that the state has “a lot of heavy lifting” to do to fill in a $3.5 billion transportation funding gap to raise the money needed to repair crumbling infrastructure, including miles of outdated sections of interstate highways and hundreds of structurally deficient bridges.
Friday’s panel, which was moderated by KDKA-TV’s money and politics editor Jon Delano, included state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, PennDOT District 12 District Executive Joe Szczur and Robert Latham of Associated PA Contractors and the Keystone Transportation Funding Coalition.
Driven by money
When Delano asked the panel members to present their views on the most critical transportation need in Western Pennsylvania, Solobay’s response was as simple as it was complex.
“It’s money,” Solobay said. “Money to do the projects outlined by PennDOT and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Planning Commission.”
Solobay, who serves on the Senate Transportation Committee, said Gov. Tom Corbett’s plan calls for $1.8 billion for transportation, but the committee wants to add another $1 billion.
Corbett’s plan is to raise the money by lifting the cap on the gasoline company franchise tax, which has been set at $1.25 per gallon since the 1990s.
According to estimates, gasoline taxes would rise an average of about 5 cents per gallon a year over the next five years.
Solobay and Szczur estimated that motorists would pay about $2.50 more per week in gasoline costs.
The increase presumably would be passed on to motorists at the pump, though state officials have said dealers might absorb part of the increase.
While conceding that “not everybody’s happy” about the proposal, the panelists said without it, the state’s highway infrastructure will only worsen.
Latham, who has worked on highway infrastructure for the past 30 years, also served on the Governor’s Transportation Advisory Commission, which produced a report containing recommendations, many of which were adopted by the governor for his latest proposal.
‘It’s up to us’
But Latham told the audience of 150 chamber members that Pennsylvania doesn’t have many alternatives to highway infrastructure funding.
In February, Congressman Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, introduced the Infrastructure Jobs and Energy Independence Act, which proposes rebuilding America’s aging locks, dams, bridges and roads by expanding offshore oil and gas exploration and using 60 percent of the proceeds from royalties and other revenues received from leasing to offset the $2.2 trillion in repairs needed for America’s transportation infrastructure.
Noting that Murphy’s bill “has a long way to go,” Latham said, “The (federal) Highway Trust Fund is not going to be funded. It’s up to us in Pennsylvania to fund our own program.”
“If we don’t do anything now, then when?” added Szczur, who oversees a $340 million budget for District 12, which includes Washington, Greene, Fayette and Westmoreland counties.
While acknowledging that the spending plan “is a heavy lift, no doubt about that,” Szczur said despite the fact that motorists would pay more at the pumps, they would at least be able to see the results of extra revenue being applied to projects.
He said he hopes the additional revenue also would help the district take care of necessary maintenance and replacement projects while providing more money for economic development projects.
Szczur’s district already is working on several high-visibility traffic projects in the area, including the new Meadowlands interchange on Interstate 79 and the upgrade to the I-79 South Junction.
The district also is working on upgrading Interstate 70 between Washington and New Stanton, a stretch Szczur described as “one of the most deficient” on the route. It’s a long-term project he said could take between 10 and 20 years to complete under the current funding restraints.
As for bridges, Szczur said the 10 counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania have some of the worst bridges in the state, despite the fact that currently 60 to 70 percent of the highway budget goes into their maintenance.
Despite the dire need to upgrade major highways and repair or replace bridges, funding has been headed in the wrong direction for some time.
By way of comparison, Szczur noted that four years ago, his district had a projected budget of $670 million from combined federal and state funds for the four-county area. Last October, the budget was slightly more than half that.
All of this comes at a time when more drivers are using the region’s highways, partly a result of the energy boom created by Marcellus Shale drilling.
Recently released updated data from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that for the first time in decades, more people are moving to the Pittsburgh region than leaving. The bureau said this week that the region’s population rose by nearly 4,000 to 2.3 million over the past two years.
“Traffic is never going to decrease. People are traveling more,” Szczur said.