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.

Some Lawmakers Want to Abolish Turnpike Commission

It’s not the first time someone in Harrisburg has called for abolishing the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, but this plan comes on the heels of a grand jury corruption indictment.

House Bill 1197 would transfer all Turnpike operations to PennDOT. A new Bureau of Toll Administration would be created, with a deputy secretary to oversee it. The state would also assume the turnpike’s debt and a committee would be appointed to look at ways to retire it.

Representative Donna Oberlander says the commission is outdated and in order to address Pennsylvania’s critical transportation funding issue, the state must eliminate all inefficiencies and excess.  She says workers would be protected; the bill calls for honoring all collective bargaining agreements in effect at the time of the transfer, meaning union contracts would remain intact.

Representative Mike Vereb cited the recent grand jury indictments charging pay to play corruption in the turnpike’s former administration.   He says things have changed, the turnpike has restored a different style of leadership, but he suggests “this tumor is beyond radiation”.

Vereb says with this “bible” handed to them by the attorney general and former attorney general, they have a reason, goal and mission; and now all they need is some political courage.

Representative Jim Christiana says it’s important to look at all aspects of transportation as the state deals with the critical issue of funding. He says before we can ask for more revenue, we have to make sure we’re spending transportation dollars as efficiently and effectively as possible.

The Turnpike Commission issued a response, saying it has not taken a position on a proposal to merge with PennDOT. The release points out that reforms have been undertaken and the Turnpike has been working closer with PennDOT in recent years.

Radio PA Roundtable 04.05.13

On this week’s Radio PA Roundtable, Brad Christman brings you an interview with PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch and Matt Paul speaks with a supporter of legislation that would set minimum staffing standards for nurses in Pennsylvania hospitals.

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

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:


Great American Cleanup Underway in PA

Wanted: volunteers to participate in the Great American Cleanup of Pennsylvania.  The annual statewide roadside cleanup effort plays an important role in keeping Pennsylvania beautiful.  “It’s surprising how much litter is out there,” says PennDOT spokeswoman Jamie Legenos.  “For instance, last year alone there was 6.7-million pounds of litter that was collected from roads, trails and shorelines.  We had 141,000 volunteers out there.”  But Legenos freely admits those numbers are slipping.  In 2011, nearly 160,000 volunteers collected over 7-million pounds of trash. 

A first-ever Great American Cleanup Video Contest is just one way in which organizers are hoping to engage more volunteers.  While the Great American Cleanup officially runs now through May 31st, registered events will have access to free disposal at participating landfills during the “Pick-it-up PA Days,” which run April 20th – May 6th

This annual spring cleaning of Pennsylvania’s roadsides is sponsored by PennDOT, Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful and the state DEP.  PennDOT provides the gloves, trash bags and safety vests for official Great American Cleanup of Pennsylvania groups.

PennDOT Keeping Up with Winter That Won’t Go Away

The calendar might say spring but the weather still says winter.  Despite today’s snow, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation road crews have been keeping up with the season that won’t quit.

The parade of smaller storms this winter has not depleted PennDOT’s supplies according to spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt.  She says it has been relatively mild winter statewide on the whole.

Waters-Trasatt says PennDOT treats depending on the type of storm and whether there’s more ice or snow or rain mixing in.  If storms are closer together, there will be salt residue on the roads, meaning they will have to pre-treat less. Just last week, parts of the state had a similar snowfall.

Waters-Trassat says they have not changed their brine use recently; they’re not using more or less of it than usual.    Some mechanics are reporting more vehicle corrosion, citing more use of brine in recent years by road crews during winter.

You can learn more about PennDOT’s approach to winter storms at the department’s website.

Highway Deaths Hit 62 Year Low Nationally, but Some Categories Increase

Nationally, traffic deaths dropped almost 2% in 2011 according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but the number of deaths involving bicyclists rose nearly 9 percent and there was a 20% jump in deaths of occupants of large trucks.

Erin Waters of PennDOT says Pennsylvania did not follow those trends. Deaths of drivers and passengers in heavy trucks held about steady.  Deaths of bicyclists fell by over 50% from 2010 to 2011. This was before the new law requiring drivers to give bike riders a wider berth when passing them took effect.

The overall number of traffic deaths dropped nearly 3% in Pennsylvania from 2010 to 2011. But the state actually hit its lowest level in 2009.  Nationally, the number of highway deaths was at its lowest level in 62 years in 2011.

State Police Start Holiday Enforcement

The national Click it or Ticket campaign is underway through December 2nd.  It focuses on proper seatbelt and child safety seat usage.   But Pennsylvania State Police spokesman Trooper Adam Reed says that’s not all troopers will be looking for over the holiday.  He says they will also focus on aggressive driving and other violations.

Trooper Reed reminds drivers the seatbelt law is a primary offense for drivers and passengers under age 18, meaning they  must be properly restrained while riding in a motor vehicle, or you could be pulled over.  He encourages drivers to slow down and take their time over the busy holiday travel period.

As part of the campaign, State police will offer free child safety seat inspections. To get a list of sites, go to

Click It or Ticket is part of Pennsylvania’s “Operation Safe Holiday.”  PennDOT and police departments across the state are joining forces to increase enforcement through the New Year holiday.  Those efforts will include sobriety checkpoints, roving patrols and regular safety patrols.

The Thanksgiving holiday is one of the busiest travel periods of the year. Mothers Against Drunk Driving reports that 40% of the fatalities over the holiday weekend are related to driving under the influence of alcohol.

PennDOT Assessing Road, Bridge Damage from Sandy

As of Tuesday morning, more than 400 roads and bridges were still closed across the state in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  PennDOT is still assessing the amount of damage.

Crews started damage assessments where it safe to do so, but some bridge inspections will have to wait until the water recedes PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters says some roads were closed due to wires and trees down but others were affected by flooding. Most of the closures were in the southeastern quadrant of the state, the Lehigh Valley and parts of the Capital Region.

Waters reminds drivers that a new Pennsylvania law sets fines for those who do not obey road closure signs and barricades. The fine goes up if the person has to be rescued.  She adds people should not drive around just to see the damage or take photos of it; that could impede utility and road crews from doing the work needed to reopen roads and restore power.

For the latest on road conditions, go to

Turnpike, PennDOT Officials Ask Pennsylvanians to Avoid Travel

Officials at PennDOT and the Pennsylvania Turnpike are asking people from the state capital region eastward to avoid unnecessary travel if possible.

Speed limits have been lowered to 45 miles an hour on the Turnpike from Carlisle east and on a number of major highways and interstates in the eastern half of the state.  Certain trucks, trailers, RVs and motorcycles have been restricted from those roads that have the reduced speed limit.

Officials say the high winds from Sandy are the reason for the restrictions.  To get a full list of roads and travel conditions, go to 511PA, PennDOT’s website or the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s website.