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Here’s why Trump’s infrastructure plan might not mean more projects in Centre County

The Atherton Street project, which involves replacement of the underground storm drains and repaving the road, could benefit from potential federal funds.
The Atherton Street project, which involves replacement of the underground storm drains and repaving the road, could benefit from potential federal funds. Centre Daily Times file

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump outlined a $1.5 trillion infrastructure spending plan during his State of the Union address, but the plan could stress the local and state funding pools used for potential projects.

Trump’s speech recommitted to a proposal his administration touted in June that provides $200 billion for infrastructure spending over a 10-year period.

But according to a draft of his plan, the federal government will provide a grant to cover no more than 20 percent of the total project cost, which leaves state and local project planners to spend more than $1 trillion to deliver on Trump’s promise.

Tom Zilla, principal transportation planner for the Centre Regional Planning Agency, is one of the people who will handle the lofty task (if Trump’s plan makes its way through Congress and becomes a law).

Zilla coordinates the Centre County Metropolitan Planning Organization, which operates under a federal mandate to work with state and local government officials to help prioritize and allocate funding for infrastructure projects.

His duties are centered on managing the gap between grant money and the total cost of an infrastructure project. Under the current procedure, government officials will submit applications for grants, which typically cover about 75 percent of the total construction cost. The remaining 25 percent is paid for with revenue resources generated by the state, county and municipalities, according to Zilla.

Trump’s plan essentially flips the structure of the grant process. Under the president’s plan, federal grants for infrastructure projects will not exceed 20 percent of the total project cost, which leaves state and local governments to come up with the remaining 80 percent.

One way the MPOs help pay for projects is by using money available through the state’s Act 89 of 2013, which was signed by former governor Tom Corbett and designed to generate more than $2 billion for infrastructure projects. But the money provided by the act, as well as other sources, is already stretched thin, which concerns Zilla.

“I don’t see any additional legislation happening because it took a long time to get Act 89 approved,” Zilla said. “It will be interesting to see if we can find other ways of meeting that gap using private sector funding, which the president did mention last night, but I don’t see us doing anything on a municipal basis.”

Last year, the Centre County Board of Commissioners approved an ordinance, permitted under Act 89, which raised the vehicle registration fee by $5. The county expects the increase to generate about $600,000 annually to be used to match grant money, but Commissioner Michael Pipe said there is no additional legislation in the works that could provide more funding.

“I think the best thing that the federal government can do is to recognize the fact that if there are federal transportation projects, then their role is to focus on that and get us money for those projects,” Pipe said. “There’s no way that we can do a large project where they’re putting in only 20 percent.”

Zilla identified three large projects around the county that he believes could benefit from the potential federal dollars: the I-99/I-80 interchange near Bellefonte, the Potters Mills U.S, Route 322 project and the Atherton Street project in State College.

The four-section Atherton Street project involves replacement of the underground storm drains and repaving the road. The first two sections are funded, the third section is partially funded and the fourth section is not funded.

“An influx of federal funds into our program would certainly help us commit and allocate funds for that project,” Zilla said. “But we will need to see how it plays out on a legislative level.”

Trump’s speech continued a theme that goes back to the 2016 campaign trail of promising infrastructure spending, but without legislation to examine, the president’s projections are just rhetoric, Pipe said.

“It would be nice to see a final plan from the White House,” Pipe said. “But until we do, the county and the county MPO will continue to express our support for an infrastructure bill to our federal delegation. Pennsylvania and especially Centre County are ready to go when it comes to transportation.”

Leon Valsechi: 814-231-4631, @leon_valsechi

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