The road to long-awaited state infrastructure improvements ran through Centre County on Monday.
Gov. Tom Corbett, seated outside the Potters Mills Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, signed into law a transportation bill that will pump an estimated $2.3 billion a year into the state’s roads and bridges.
“It’s what I call the passport to the future when it comes to transportation, but even more so for public safety and economic development,” Corbett said to a few hundred people who gathered early Monday at the VFW.
Corbett’s decision to travel to Centre County put him in the shadow of one of the largest projects that will be funded by the bill.
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An estimated $761 million for projects to improve U.S. Route 322 from the top of Seven Mountains to Boalsburg are on the state Department of Transportation’s list.
State Sen. Jake Corman told the crowd Monday that the cost of doing nothing is even higher.
“The road behind me has over 100 accidents in the last decade, some of them fatal,” Corman, R-Benner Township, said. “... This road is going to be fixed and be a lot safer place for the people of Centre County.”
Corbett said a series of upgrades to the busy highway, which he called “one of the economic lifelines here to State College and to Happy Valley,” are among hundreds of projects across the state that can now proceed.
One component to the Route 322 work is a 3.75-mile stretch from its intersection with state Route 144 to the top of Seven Mountains.
PennDOT officials said that stretch alone has a price tag of more than $100 million. The work is aimed at increasing safety and reducing congestion on what officials have deemed a problem spot.
Officials said they hope to stay on schedule for groundbreaking before the end of 2014.
Corbett said the bill also provides funds to repair the aging dam at Colyer Lake in Potter Township.
“It’s phenomenal,” said Centre County President Judge Thomas King Kistler, a lake homeowner who helped spearhead an effort to save the popular recreational spot. “I looked out this weekend and thought ‘It’s going to be full again.’ ”
In March, the state Fish and Boat Commission declared that the aging dam had become “highly hazardous.” The agency began draining the lake to protect homes downstream from being flooded.
Other effects will be felt in the region, as additional money will be available to repair or replace deficient bridges.
Centre County Commissioner Chris Exarchos, who attended the bill signing Monday, called the funding “very important.”
He said the county, along with the rest of the state, has been struggling for years with aging infrastructure and has been waiting for meaningful funding.
“It’s a good start,” Exarchos said.
The bill also is being praised for its expected benefits to the state’s extensive rural transportation infrastructure.
Steve Bloser, director of the Center for Dirt and Gravel Roads at Penn State’s Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute, said the bill increases funding to the state’s low-volume road maintenance program from $5 million to $35 million.
“The program has proved to be both efficient and effective in providing local municipalities with a more economically and environmentally sustainable rural road network,” Bloser said in a statement.
The bill, which was passed by the General Assembly last week, will be funded through increases in the gasoline tax and motorist fees that will be phased in over five years. The new funding is expected to generate $2.3 billion annually by the fifth year.
Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch, who was traveling with Corbett on Monday, said motorists shouldn’t expect an immediate jump of prices at the pump.
He said drivers could pay about $2.50 more per week in fuel by the fifth year of the plan, and pointed to a similarly priced gallon container of iced tea that state officials brought along to put the expense in context.
That increase assumes the oil company franchise tax on wholesale gasoline is entirely passed on to consumers, Schoch said. The tax is imposed on the sale of fuel to gas station owners.
Corbett downplayed the tax increase in his brief remarks Monday.
“Already we hear some people attacking this bill with scare language rather than recognizing it for what it is,” Corbett said. “It’s an investment in the progress of our economy, but more particularly, an investment in the public safety or our roads, bridges and transit system.”
Corbett left Centre County on Monday morning for similar stops in the Philadelphia area and in Pittsburgh.
“Some people may have asked why did you pick Centre County first, and let me be frank about this,” Corbett said. “The last time I looked, Centre County is the center of the state, and this transportation bill deals with transportation for the entire state.”