PennDon't: Corbett once again fails to deal with transportation funding | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

PennDon't: Corbett once again fails to deal with transportation funding

"For every day we don't address this issue, the price tag goes up."

Photo Illustration by Lisa Cunningham
Photo Illustration by Lisa Cunningham

Since Gov. Tom Corbett took office, much ado has been made about fixing the state's transportation funding problem.

But little has actually been done about it.

In 2011, Corbett's budget address didn't mention transportation at all.

In 2012, he said it wasn't a budget item. "It's too large for that," Corbett said, while proposing his spending plan in February 2012.  

This year seemed to hold more promise. Corbett's Feb. 5 budget proposal included a plan for roads, bridges and mass transit. The Port Authority of Allegheny County, spared from a devastating service cut in 2012 with the help of union concessions and funding from the state, actually talked about new projects like bus rapid transit. A transportation funding bill even made it through the Senate.

But when it got to the House, the bill died, and state lawmakers left Harrisburg after passing a budget that didn't include a transportation solution. With construction season already passing, eyes are now trained on the fall, when state leaders say the matter will be taken up again. 

Meanwhile, questions are mounting about what happens now to roads, bridges and mass transit. Even the Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation website has a page dedicated to the "cost of doing nothing" that outlines grave circumstances for the state's already-weary transportation infrastructure.

"For every day we don't address this issue, the price tag goes up," says state Rep. Erin Molchany (D-Brookline.) "I think the detriment of not getting it done in the fall would really be a sad commentary on the state of things."

The state of things is this: Pennsylvania has the highest number of structurally deficient bridges in the country — more than 4,000 of our 25,000 spans are in that category. In 2011, the state had 9,200 miles of road classified in poor condition, and that's estimated to increase to 16,000 miles by 2017. 

Without a transportation funding package, says PennDOT press secretary Steve Chizmar, the agency will be forced to post lower weight limits on bridges. An estimated 12,000 jobs in the highway and construction industry are also at stake. 

Transit agencies are also struggling. At the Port Authority, chronic funding shortfalls had been somewhat stabilized since last year, when local leaders announced for the agency a funding plan that averted a 35 percent service reduction and massive layoffs. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 agreed to a new contract that included about $60 million in concessions. In turn, the state promised $30 million in additional funding for the agency, with an increased county match. But although Port Authority received $30 million in 2012, future funding — which its current operating budget assumes will be on the way — could be in jeopardy for the rest of the year.

"Right now we don't have the money to continue," says Chizmar. The state has only $16.4 million in additional transit funding available for the entire state, he says — "and we have $34 million in need." 

For Pittsburgh, more is at stake than the promised $30 million. As part of the contract that staved off service cuts, Local 85 included a provision that allows either the union or Port Authority to revert to the previous contract should future cuts require a 5 percent reduction in the work force or the closure of a maintenance garage. Canceling the union concessions would only make the agency's shortfalls worse.

Stephen Palonis, who heads Local 85, says union leadership is working with the Port Authority to plan for multiple scenarios. Palonis said he couldn't speculate on when the union would invoke the original contract if the state doesn't come through; it depends on the severity of any potential cuts and layoffs. "I couldn't put a timeline on it."

But "I'm concerned they won't pass a bill in October," Palonis says. "If these reductions go forth, the economy of Pittsburgh is going to go to hell in a handbag. Businesses are going to move out and people won't be able to get work. It'll be a catastrophe."

A state shortfall "means layoffs and cuts to service routes, and that's what we fought so hard to avoid," says Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. "We don't want to put people back in the position of ‘Do I have to worry about transit not being there?'"

Any shortfall at the state level "has a trickle-down effect on the economy," Chizmar acknowledges. "The bottom line is there is only so much water in the well, and we have to figure out how to divide that."

There has been some movement on a funding package. Senate Bill 1, put forth by Sen. John Rafferty (R-Montgomery), proposed $2.5 billion for roads, bridges and mass transit by its fifth year, following recommendations made by Corbett's own Transportation Funding Advisory Commission. The bill increased vehicle and driver fees, and traffic fines; modernized PennDOT; and uncapped the Oil Company Franchise Tax on gasoline, among other things. Rafferty's bill passed the Senate in June on a 45-5 to vote. But when it got to the House Transportation Committee, things unraveled. 

Chaired by Bedford Republican Dick Hess, the House committee amended SB1 to include less than $2 billion in transportation funding. Democrats fought against it, saying the Senate bill was gutted because investment — especially in mass transit — wasn't enough. They also contend that GOP leadership was using transportation funding to leverage votes for Corbett's initiative to privatize state wine-and-spirits stores, an effort Democrats oppose.

"Transportation funding is a fundamental core function of government," says Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa. "We're required to be able to provide it. We're not able to do that given the resources we have now. That's disappointing.

"Transportation funding is being conditioned by wine-and-spirits [privatization] — they don't belong on the same level."

While the amended bill made it out of committee, Republican leaders dropped the legislation when it was clear that it lacked support. Some Republicans, meanwhile, applauded the failure of the funding package, because it relied on increased taxes.

"We in this Legislature cannot take even more money away from state taxpayers when Pennsylvania is already spending $6.2 billion on transportation," state Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren), said in a press release. "My constituents view the transportation plan proposed in Senate Bill 1 as more money they are going to have pay for their vehicles, such as maintenance and tires, that will be wasted on bike [and] hiking trails or to subsidize mass transit for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh."

And for someone who has said that transportation funding is a priority, Corbett seemed remarkably blasé about the plan's failure: "I can't be disappointed," he told the Harrisburg Patriot-News. "I have to thank the people for what they did and I certainly encourage them when they get back in the fall: Let's get it done." He did, however, take issue with House Democrats, who refused to vote on a Republican funding measure: "I find it amazing that ... they took this position rather than good policy for the benefit of the people of Pennsylvania," Corbett told the paper.

While Democrats and Republicans wrangled in the House, transportation groups fought for the higher spending proposed by SB1. The ATU publicly supported SB1 unamended, and in a letter to his region's lawmakers, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority board chair Pasquale T. Deon argued against the version that passed out of the House Transportation Committee. "While SEPTA supported the advancement of a transportation bill, it is a support that is conditioned upon the transit funding levels reaching $475 million (as contained in the Senate-approved version of SB1) ...," Deon wrote. 

But Fitzgerald, for one, says he lobbied lawmakers to pass something, even if it wasn't the preferred version of SB1.

"As a compromise, we certainly could have limped with a little bit less," says Fitzgerald. "The worst-case scenario is having nothing at all."