While much attention has rightly been paid to our federal elected officials’ stumblings that led to a shutdown of government and a last-minute decision to avoid crashing into the debt ceiling, their counterparts in Harrisburg have been similarly incapable of dealing with a growing transportation crisis.
But there are signs that the state House of Representatives will tackle the much-delayed transportation bill this week, either moving forward to fund bridge and highway repairs and public transit, or at least removing that issue as a roadblock to other actions.
The state Senate has passed a $2.5 billion transportation plan and the House should finally do the same. Other concerns — including liquor privatization and the state pensions crisis — have been shoved to the back burner while lawmakers punted transportation back and forth.
The bill includes money for improvements at the dangerous Potters Mills curve on U.S. Route 322 near the base of Seven Mountains.
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Sen. John Rafferty, a Pottstown Republican, lobbied for the passage of the measure. Rafferty said the commonwealth leads the nation in deficient bridges with 4,400, while nearly a quarter of the 44,000 miles of state-owned roads are in poor condition. Rafferty said thousands of bridges will join the list of those with weight restrictions if repairs don’t come soon.
The governor’s office agreed.
“This is an issue that needs to be addressed,” said Jay Pagni, Gov. Tom Corbett’s press secretary. “Pennsylvania citizens should not have to rely on a transportation system that is outdated and in need of repair.”
Many factors have held up the transportation bill.
State Rep. Scott Conklin pointed to efforts to separate funding for public transportation from road and bridge improvements. Conklin said the top three transit markets in Pennsylvania are Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and — surprisingly — State College.
“Without mass transit, you can’t pass this,” Conklin, D-Rush Township, said in a recent meeting with our editorial board.
He also said Corbett backed himself into a corner by saying he would not support any tax increases. The Senate highway plan would fund repairs through an increase in the liquid fuels tax.
“Corbett can’t sign a gas-tax-driven highway bill since he has signed a no-tax pledge,” Conklin said.
Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, said a debate over reducing the threshold for prevailing wages on road jobs has slowed progress. He and other legislators who met with the Centre Daily Times in Harrisburg last week indicated that there is even disagreement among labor groups about prevailing wage.
The prevailing wage requires that any job costing $25,000 or more maintain a union wage scale, even if an individual project is not being completed by unionized workers. Corbett pointed out that the limit was set in 1961 and has not moved with inflation, and that a $25,000 job is much smaller than it was 52 years ago.
State Rep Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, said raising the prevailing wage ceiling could hold down costs for smaller road repairs, often performed by municipal crews or local private subcontractors, by as much as 30 percent. He called current rates “archaic.”
The transportation plan has also fallen prey to modern politics, with neither Republicans nor Democrats feeling inclined to find bipartisan solutions.
But this debate has dragged on for months, meaning transportation projects are not getting funded, and the state’s other important concerns are being ignored.
Benninghoff said the House is likely to either amend the Senate bill, or offer a counterproposal, perhaps at a slightly lower dollar amount. Either step would be a welcome deviation from the inaction that has dogged this issue.
“This is one thing I think we can get done in a generally bipartisan manner,” Benninghoff said.
That remains to be seen, although we’re hopeful.
Benninghoff added: “The bottom line is that if you keep doing nothing, the price is guaranteed to go up.”
That’s another strong argument for getting a bill onto the House floor and voting soon.