As ink dries on legislation, road plans come into focus
HARRISBURG - A more complete picture of what it means to tackle state transportation issues in a comprehensive manner is emerging with the ink scarcely dry on the $2.3 billion transportation funding law.
Plans are under way to schedule work on projects to replace structurally deficient bridges, make driving conditions safer and improve the flow of traffic, said state Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch in an interview with reporters last week.
"You can expect to see a significant increase in bridge work, paving work and intersection work starting this spring," Schoch said.
This will be the most visible sign of a $320 million infusion of new state transportation revenue in 2014, an increase that will build up to $2.3 billion in additional spending by the fifth year, according to the transportation department.
The money will be spent on state roads and bridges, local roads and bridges, public transit, low-volume rural roads, some turnpike projects and rail lines, airports and shipping ports.
The revenue will come by gradually lifting the cap on a state wholesale tax on gasoline over five years, thereby leading to higher prices for gasoline, and increases in some motorist fees and fines.
The initial spending will focus on shoring up a crumbling transportation network that shows the effects of a "decade of under-investment," said Schoch. For example, road work will focus on making pavement less bumpy and more skid resistant.
The weight limit signs posted on hundreds of structurally deficient bridges won't come down anytime soon. In many cases, these bridges have been posted to extend their lifespan and slow further deterioration from the rumble of heavy vehicles.
That means the earliest weight restrictions would be lifted on a specific bridge is at the two-year mark ahead of the start of a repair or rebuilding project, Schoch said.
Replacement work could be accelerated for some bridges that come under the aegis of a new public-private partnership program for transportation projects. A state board was created earlier this year to consider proposals from private firms to replace selected bridges and then maintain them. The companies would get an up-front payment from the state and then use their own methods to shorten the construction timetable.
The full scope of the new program becomes more apparent when one considers the $40 million in state grant money that will be available by fiscal 2016-17 to upgrade traffic signals maintained by local municipalities. Some $10 million will be available next year.
Congestion will be eased with signals that respond better to the flow of traffic at an intersection, said Schoch.
The program provides a dedicated annual revenue stream for the first time for the improvement of rail lines, airports and ports. This will be of benefit when a business considers locating or expanding in Pennsylvania and the deal hinges on improving a rail line for access to markets, he said.
"It helps us with economic competition with other states," Schoch said.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)