Pa. highways are crumbling and there’s not enough money to fix them
Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster, PA)
Kick the can down the road long enough, eventually it’ll land in a pothole. That time might have arrived for Pennsylvania’s roadway infrastructure funding. The laws, short-term fixes and diversions of billions of dollars meant for road and bridge maintenance have brought the state to the brink of multiple simultaneous crises, state officials say.
Despite having the highest gas tax in the country, PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards has warned House appropriators that her agency is billions of dollars short of what’s needed to maintain one of the largest networks of roadways in the country.
More than a decade after the Legislature decided to squeeze billions of dollars from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the superhighway network is on the brink of “catastrophe,” with a debt load that will eclipse the amount borrowed by all other state government agencies next year, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has warned.
And the ancillary agencies that have come to rely on billions of diverted road-maintenance dollars — chief among them public transit authorities and the state police — find themselves staring into an uncertain future as the bill for years of deferred maintenance comes due.
Pennsylvania drivers are paying for those decisions one way or another, shelling out extra money in gas and repair bills due to poor road conditions — sometimes paying far more than it would’ve cost to repair the road in the first place.
And it’s about to get worse.
Pennsylvania'sTurnpike Commission, despite regular increases in turnpike fees, is $11.8 billion in debt, which is greater than the amount that will be borrowed by all other state agencies combined next year.
“This time of year, when you go from 20 degrees to 50 degrees, the road pops” as the freeze-thaw cycle buckles pavement and erodes gaps beneath roadways that turn into potholes, Turnpike CEO Mark Crompton said at a recent news conference.
Sen. Kim Ward, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, announced she’ll be forming working groups to try to figure out a sustainable solution to the short- and long-term road maintenance challenges. Behind the scenes, alarmed legislators have been working on measures to figure out new ways to drum up the needed revenue.
The challenge is enormous. Almost 120,000 miles of roads tie the state together, 40,000 of which are state-owned.
“We have the fifth-largest state-maintained roadway network in the country, roughly the size of New York, New Jersey, and New England’s state systems combined,” said PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt. “And last year we saw record-breaking flooding and significant slide damage that compounded our existing challenges.”
One in four highway miles in the state is in poor condition, and fewer than a third are in good condition, according to the Federal Highway Administration, which uses the International Roughness Index to measure road quality.
Lawmakers have created several new revenue streams for road and bridge projects, but they keep diverting the money to pay for other priorities.
Pennsylvania’s 58.7-cent gas tax is the highest in the country, 3 cents higher than California’s and nearly 10 cents above third-place Washington’s, according to the American Petroleum Institute. That doesn’t include the 18.4-cent federal tax.
The state tax — officially called the Liquid Fuels Tax — is a primary source of revenue for the Motor License Fund, which was created to pay for road and bridge projects.
But the state police agency has gobbled up an increasingly larger share of that fund as its budget more than doubled from the 2001-02 budget year through 2016-17. What had been a $570 million budget ballooned to $1.2 billion as an ever-growing number of municipalities abandoned the cost of local police departments and began relying on state troopers instead, according to a 2018 House budget briefing document.
Rather than figure out how to pay for that out of the state’s general fund, legislators raided the Motor License Fund. The $340 million diverted from that fund to state police in 2001-02 became $802 million by 2016-17. That year, lawmakers used the fiscal code to reduce Motor License Fund payments to the agency by 40 percent over a 10-year period starting this year, resulting in $50 million less for state police each year, said Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Luzerne County, minority chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
The most recent gas tax increase was the result of Act 89 of 2013, the last major transportation funding legislation to make it into law. The increase was meant to fix a series of problems created by a 2007 law that forced the Turnpike to give PennDOT $450 million a year. That $450 million was initially supposed to be divided between transportation projects and public transit agencies. The 2013 law shifted the money entirely to those transit agencies.
And now that deal is falling apart, too.
The Turnpike Commission met its payments to PennDOT in the grand tradition of Pennsylvania authorities: It borrowed the money. The move jacked up the Turnpike’s debt to $11.8 billion in debt, DePasquale said.
“To put that in perspective, next year’s Turnpike debt is going to be higher than the entire commonwealth of Pennsylvania from all other sources,” DePasquale said.
“The idea that motorists and truckers on Interstate 76 are going to be able to pay that debt back is literally delusional,” DePasquale said.
Not that they haven’t been trying.
Before 2007, the Turnpike Commission had raised tolls five times in 64 years, DePasquale said. Since then, it’s raised tolls 11 times, making the once-rare rate hikes an annual occurrence.
YOU PAY, ONE WAY OR THE OTHER
It can be tempting to see that as a burden only for people who use the Turnpike, but it’s not that simple. Just as the state’s road network is interconnected, so too are the costs of maintenance and inattention.
“Those truckers that are driving on that — if they’re hauling fruit, if they’re hauling food, if they’re hauling goods and services that you’re buying in Pennsylvania, yes, you are paying that, because that is being passed along to the consumers,” DePasquale said. “Family farmers who have products to get to market, they’re paying that toll.”
And as truckers decide it’s more cost-effective for them to trade the Turnpike’s tolls for a longer travel time on an alternate route, those smaller roads take more of a pounding.
Poor road conditions aren’t merely an irritation. If you drive a car, you’re bearing the cost of those rough roads, too.
Nationwide, drivers pay about $67 billion a year in repairs and other increased vehicle operating costs because of poor road conditions, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Pennsylvania drivers spend nearly $3 billion of that, a higher total than every state but California, Texas, New Jersey and New York.
It works out to an average of $341 per motorist in Pennsylvania, the agency estimated.
It would be cheaper, overall, just to fix the roads, according to economists at the World Bank. They estimated that for every dollar a government cuts from road maintenance, drivers pay an extra $2 to $3.
Drivers can expect paying even more in the coming year than they have in years past, according to PennDOT’s estimates.
“Based on projected revenues, revenue losses from increased fuel efficiency, inflation, significant emergency funding needs this past year and fiscal management of our large program, we anticipate $2.2 billion in construction lettings in 2019 compared to $2.5 billion in 2018. This is the first time the lettings will be below $2.4 billion” in the last five years, Richards told the House Appropriations Committee.
PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION IN JEOPARDY
At the same time, state agencies that benefited from diverted road-maintenance dollars face an uncertain future — particularly public transit authorities.
Under the 2013 transportation law, the Turnpike’s $450 million annual payment to transit agencies will decrease to $50 million in 2023.
Making matters worse, a lawsuit against the Turnpike led by truckers could cut off that money sooner, and far more abruptly. The lawsuit claims that the Turnpike’s tolls are user fees that, under federal law, are supposed to pay for the resource they’re attached to, not fill a gap elsewhere in state or local budgets.
The Turnpike stopped making its payments to transit agencies after the lawsuit was filed, forcing authorities such as SEPTA and the Port Authority of Allegheny County to cut back on their own spending, decisions that create yet more strains on the state’s transportation network.
“Everyone is hopeful the Turnpike will prevail in court. But it’s not clear what the decision will be until it is rendered. We are all hopeful for a good outcome. But if it isn’t, we will have a serious revenue problem,” said Rep. Joanna McClinton, a Democrat representing Philadelphia and Delaware counties and the newly elected House Democratic Caucus chair.
“If the Turnpike has to make a big settlement or pay fines or resolve the dispute financially. It will cause a big ripple of negative consequences,” McClinton said.
Those ripples are already being felt. The Port Authority of Allegheny County deferred about 40 capital projects after the Turnpike cut off funding, authority spokesman Adam Brandolph said. Like the roadway infrastructure, public transit is a critical component of state and local economies, he said.
“For instance, Port Authority contributes nearly $1 billion into the local, regional and state economy each year, and our annual tax revenue impact totals more than $18 million statewide,” Brandolph said. “There is significant demand for public transit, and while long-term public transit funding is currently unclear, we will continue in our mission to grow our system and provide excellent service to the Pittsburgh region.”
Even if the Turnpike prevails, however, the money transit agencies count on will be sharply reduced in a few years.
“The General Assembly’s attempt at a quick fix has pushed us down the slippery slope of unintended consequences,” DePasquale said. “Its been 12 years since (the 2007 transportation bill) passed and the state still hasn’t come up with a way to adequately fund public transportation.”
MORE PROBLEMS, MORE MONEY
In the meantime, maintenance needs continue to pile up.
Interstates need to be reconstructed every 40 years or so, Richards told the House Appropriations Committee. Right now, 57 percent of the state’s interstate system is older than that.
“Pennsylvania should be rebuilding 32 interstate miles each year, and we’ve had the resources to complete less than 10 miles per year,” Richards said.
Nearly 2,600 bridges connect that interstate system, and more than half are past their 50-year designed lifespan. Eighty-two date back to the Eisenhower administration and before.
PennDOT came up with a maintenance, repair and modernization plan for interstate highways. The plan calls for spending $40 billion over 15 years. At the current rate of $500 million a year, however, it would take 80 years to spend that much.
“When you don’t change out the roadbed as often as required, what you do is you mill and pave and do overlays,” said Crompton, the Turnpike CEO. “A lot of times, what we do is, because of the maintenance requirement, we’re going back into those same areas, inconveniencing those same customers, repaving on a three-year cycle when it should really be 10 or 15 (years) depending on what the quality of the roadbed is... That slows traffic, diverts traffic, takes resources from other areas.”
Those needs are particularly acute on the Turnpike’s oldest sections.
“It’s a 78-year-old roadway,” Crompton said. “The original footprint of that is 160 miles, much of which needs to be fully reconstructed.”
It’s a constant game of catch-up.
“The number of state-owned bridges in poor condition has decreased from a high of 6,034 in 2008 to approximately 2,835,” Waters-Trasatt, the PennDOT spokeswoman, said. “However, continued investment is critical, because we have the third-highest number of bridges in the country and, due to their age, roughly 200 to 250 of them enter the ‘poor’ category each year.”
McClinton and Carroll said they don’t believe the state has enough money to meet the demand.
“I’m skeptical that it could come out of existing revenues,” Carroll said. “But this building (the Capitol) is not eager to have that kind of conversation.”
“We will have to be creative,” McClinton said. “We will have to be able to find new revenue. And I can’t say it with a straight face, we’ll have to figure out a way to get a new revenue stream so the infrastructure is not abandoned.”