Pa. business leaders, transportation experts urge funding action
Gov. Tom Corbett said in December his administration had finalized a transportation funding plan and will present it to the legislature early this year.
His comments came more than a year after the August 2011 release of his Transportation Funding Advisory Commission's report, which analyzed how best to address the state's multibillion-dollar transportation funding gap.
As of press time, Corbett had not released his plan. The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Both Republicans and Democrats have criticized his inaction on transportation in the months since the report was released, accusing him of needless delay.
Business and transportation experts contacted by the Business Journal uniformly praised the report and said the issue warrants urgent action.
"Overall, I think the recommendations are pretty sound," said Jim Runk, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, who sat on the commission.
The Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry endorsed the report "in its entirety," and has been advocating for its passage ever since, President Tom Baldrige said.
Delays in remedying infrastructure problems just allow them to get worse, he said.
"Transportation is a 'pay it now or pay it later' issue," he said.
Indeed, Pennsylvania's funding gap, which stood at $3.5 billion in 2010, will grow to $7.2 billion in 10 years if nothing is done, the report said.
"The consequences will impact our economy, environment, and quality of life. … Service cutbacks will be unavoidable and safety will become an issue," the commission wrote.
The report recommended changes over a five-year period that would make available $2.7 billion a year in additional funding. Major components include:
• Uncapping the oil company franchise tax.
• Increasing vehicle and driver fees to match inflation.
• Increasing other fees and fines.
Fully phased in, the changes would cost the average driver $132 a year, or $2.54 a week, the report said.
One of the report's recommendations, that the state authorize public-private partnerships, was made law this summer.
"That will play a role in alleviating some of the transportation funding issues," said David Black, president and CEO of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber.
The commission also recommended shifting $300 million in state police costs to the general fund and dedicating 2 percent of sales tax revenue to transportation.
An infusion of new funding would enable the state Department of Transportation to address its backlog of maintenance projects, the report said. They include repairing or replacing hundreds of structurally deficient bridges — the state had more than 4,700 as of June — resurfacing roads and upgrading the state's rail facilities, airports and ports.
The funding also would permit PennDOT to shore up its support of local mass transportation systems, the report said.
"We'll put those additional dollars to work making common-sense improvements to help improve the quality of life for folks in this region and across the state," PennDOT spokesman Steve Chizmar said in an email.
In the Harrisburg region, a top priority for improvement is the "York split," where Interstate 83 joins the Capital Beltway south of the city, Black said.
"Rail and air are also a big part of who we are," he said.
Making headway on the Norfolk Southern Crescent Corridor project along the Interstate 81 corridor would reduce truck traffic and create jobs at intermodal freight facilities, he said. And enhancing cargo capacity at Harrisburg International Airport and enhancing its attractiveness for commercial passenger flights would help create jobs, he added.
In Lancaster, congestion issues with Centerville Road, Harrisburg Pike and Route 23 need to be addressed, and the county, like others, has a backlog of road maintenance and bridge projects, Baldrige said.
Additional funding from PennDOT would allow counties to get key projects into the pipeline sooner, said Dave Royer, transportation planning director at the Lancaster County Planning Commission.
Last year's construction seasons came and went without action on the TFAC report, Runk said. Moving expeditiously this year could allow work to start this spring, he said.
"I think it's important to do it now," he said.
The Harrisburg area, situated within two days' drive of half the nation's consumers, is a critical hub in America's distribution and logistics network, he said.
Improving its transportation infrastructure "can't do anything but good," he said.