Radio PA Roundtable – July 25, 2014

On this week’s Radio PA Roundtable, Pennsylvania received some bad news as its credit rating was downgraded. Drivers on the PA Turnpike received some good news regarding the speed limit on a 100-mile stretch of the toll highway. And are we finally able to see what the cars of the future will be like?

Radio PA Roundtable is a 30-minute program featuring in-depth reporting, commentary and analysis on the top news stories of the week.

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:

House Finally Passes Transportation Funding Plan

After years of describing the situation as a crisis, lawmakers in the state House finally approved a comprehensive funding plan for roads, bridges and mass transit in Pennsylvania late Tuesday.

The favorable vote came just one day after the House rejected the same proposal. PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch says he believes some lawmakers reconsidered the impact of their negative votes overnight and that led to a change of heart for 6 Republicans and 2 Democrats.

Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) said he changed his vote after being reassured the bill would keep changes to reduce laborers’ pay on smaller public works projects, and that the Senate would further amend the measure to reduce the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s current borrowing load. One House GOP aide suggested that deal had yet to be sewed up.

The plan would provide about $2.3 billion annually, and includes increased fees and the removal of a cap on a wholesale gasoline tax. A block of Republican lawmakers had opposed those revenue generators, while a group of Democrats objected to demands by the GOP for prevailing wage reform. In the end, the bill had a little bit to make everyone unhappy, but not enough to stop a majority of lawmakers from approving the much-needed funding plan.

The vote is also a much-needed victory for the Corbett Administration, which lobbied hard to get lawmakers to pass a funding plan for road and bridge repair and mass transit. The failure of this major initiative had been hanging over the governor’s head on the eve of a re-election campaign in 2014.

The plan now goes to the Senate, which passed a similar proposal last June. Senate leaders were planning to meet Wednesday morning to discuss the legislation.


New Weight Restrictions Likely on Hundreds of Pennsylvania Bridges

The legislature was unable to agree on a transportation funding package before the summer session break.  Now, lawmakers have been told  that  the consequences are coming soon.

State Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch told the state senate Transportation committee during a hearing Wednesday that the lack of additional funding will mean fewer contracts let this year and more restrictions on aging state and locally owned bridges.

PennDOT structural engineers are evaluating over one thousand state owned bridges and Schoch says there are an equal number of locally owned bridges that are also candidates for weight restrictions.  He expects about half of the bridges will see new restrictions starting this summer

Schoch says they have no choice with no new funding for reconstruction and replacement.

Schoch says the restrictions will mean longer commutes for haulers, school buses and emergency vehicles.     He also told the transportation committee that even if lawmakers approve a funding plan in the fall, this construction season will already have been lost for projects that might have been started with the additional money.

In other testimony, an analysis by the American Road and Transportation Builders Alliance says fewer contracts could cost the state’s economy more than one billion over five years and jeopardize thousands of jobs.

The organization’s chief economist adds that commuters, first responders, school buses and trucks cross structurally deficit bridges in Pennsylvania an average of 51.5 million times per day.

House Committee Clears Transportation Bill With Major Amendments

The state House Transportation Committee has approved a highway, bridge and mass transit funding bill, making significant changes to the senate version.

The amended bill would provide nearly 2 billion annually for transportation by year five, primarily through a three step phase-out of the cap on the oil company franchise tax. The bill also increases the tire tax, vehicle lease fee and jet fuel tax. It would raise the fine for failure to obey a traffic control device from $25 to $75.

Counties could assess a 5 dollar per vehicle registration fee for local transportation needs, and municipalities could increase the realty transfer, earned income and sales and taxes to raise money for mass transit.

Another significant change from the Senate bill is the sunsetting of the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s Act 44 obligation to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The 200 million dollar a year transfer for roads and bridges would stop immediately.  The 250 million dollar annual contribution for mass transit would continue for eight years then be replaced by money from vehicle sales tax revenues.

The bill eliminated the higher driver’s license and registration fees and a 100 dollar surcharge on traffic violations contained in the original senate version.

Representative Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks) was a “no” vote. He says they may not get another bite at the apple again for some time, since the last major transportation funding bill was passed in 1996.  He says the bill does far too little to seriously address the state’s transportation problems.

But Transportation committee chair Dick Hess (R-Bedford) says it was a yeoman’s job to craft something to benefit Pennsylvania economically, while not overburdening consumers.  He says there will be an opportunity to amend the bill on the house floor.