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
More than a decade after the Legislature decided to squeeze billions of dollars from the
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.
And it’s about to get worse.
“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
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
One in four highway miles in the state is in poor condition, and fewer than a third are in good condition, according to the
Lawmakers have created several new revenue streams for road and bridge projects, but they keep diverting the money to pay for other priorities.
The state tax — officially called the Liquid Fuels Tax — is a primary source of revenue for the
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
Rather than figure out how to pay for that out of the state’s general fund, legislators raided the
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
And now that deal is falling apart, too.
“To put that in perspective, next year’s Turnpike debt is going to be higher than the entire commonwealth of
“The idea that motorists and truckers on
Not that they haven’t been trying.
Before 2007, the
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
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
It works out to an average of
It would be cheaper, overall, just to fix the roads, according to economists at the
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
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
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
“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.
“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
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
“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
“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
“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.”
Crédito: MIKE WERESCHAGIN | The Caucus