Pennsylvania must find better way to fix its poor roads
The situation is grim for Pennsylvania's roadway infrastructure, The Caucus' Mike Wereschagin explained that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is “billions of dollars short of what's needed to maintain one of the largest networks of roadways in the country." It's a complicated issue that involves the diversion of the highest gas tax in the United States, a debt-ridden Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, maintenance and reconstruction needs that are years or decades overdue and Pennsylvania drivers and taxpayers who are continually paying the price for these messes.
We love Pennsylvania, but sometimes it truly tries our patience. Specifically, our elected officials in Harrisburg try our patience.
There are myriad crucial issues that rightfully should be the top priority in the Capitol: fair funding for public education, local property taxes and greenhouse gas emissions, to name a few.
But the slow-moving catastrophe involving our roads, highways and bridges arguably could supersede all of those.
Without our roads, we are lost.
Or, at the very least, stuck.
Stuck economically. Stuck trying to get across the county or the state. Stuck at the repair shop with the estimated $341 per year each of us pays for car repairs that are directly attributable to Pennsylvania's poor road conditions, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
Writes Wereschagin: “The laws, short-term fixes and diversions of billions of dollars meant for road and bridge maintenance have brought the state to the brink of multiple simultaneous crises."
He detailed our state's road to road woes.
Pennsylvania's 58.7-cent gas tax is the highest in America. It is the primary source of revenue for the fund that's meant to pay for road and bridge projects. But the Pennsylvania State Police budget ballooned earlier this century when “an ever-growing number of municipalities abandoned the cost of local police departments and began relying on state troopers." So, Wereschagin notes, legislators responded to that budget problem by raiding the gas-tax revenue.
Meanwhile, the Turnpike Commission is supposed to be providing PennDOT with $450 million per year for public transit. (The payment decreases to $50 million per year in 2023.) But it's been borrowing to pay that tab. The turnpike is now sitting on $11.8 billion in debt and furthermore has raised tolls 11 times since 2007. So our wallets get hit harder, with little to show for it.
Amid all this, our critical road maintenance needs continue to accumulate. About 57 percent of Pennsylvania's interstate system is well past the age of requiring reconstruction, PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards says. Additionally, “nearly 2,600 bridges connect that interstate system, and more than half are past their 50-year designed lifespan," Wereschagin reports.
PennDOT estimates the cost of maintenance, repair and modernization for our interstate highways alone would require $40 billion over the next 15 years. Obviously, that kind of money is not available, leading to, as Wereschagin notes, “a constant game of catch-up."
Constant catch-up means constant headaches for us. And it's terribly inefficient. Says Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Mark Crompton: “When you don't change out the roadbed as often as required, what you do is you mill and pave and do overlays... We're going back into those same areas, inconveniencing those same customers, repaving on a three-year cycle when it should really be 10 or 15 (years) depending on what the quality of the roadbed is... That slows traffic, diverts traffic, takes resources from other areas."
With each season, the crisis compounds itself.
This time of year, the end of the freeze-thaw cycle can buckle pavement and lead to a fresh outbreak of potholes. Spring rains add to the dire equation.
Drivers bear these costs at double to triple the rate we might if the roads were properly maintained, according to economists at the World Bank. “For every dollar a government cuts from road maintenance, drivers pay an extra $2 to $3," Wereschagin writes, further stating, “Kick the can down the road long enough, eventually it'll land in a pothole. That time might have arrived for Pennsylvania's roadway infrastructure funding."
Indeed, we are in the pothole.
Can we get out?
Pennsylvania clearly does not have the funds — as they are currently allocated — to adequately address its crumbling transportation infrastructure.
There can be no quick or short-sighted fix, either. Quick fixes got us here.
Harrisburg needs to look at this as if it's starting from scratch. The first thing we might suggest would be making sure that as much of the state gas tax as possible goes directly toward road projects, increasing the funding available to PennDOT for much-needed work.
That, in turn, will require a new vision for funding Pennsylvania State Police. We wrote in February that we support the philosophy behind Gov. Tom Wolf's proposal to charge a sliding-scale fee to municipalities that rely solely on state police coverage. While Wolf's proposal wouldn't fully cover the cost of state police, it's a start. We must fund state police properly, so that we can do the same with infrastructure. No more taking from one fund to pay another unrelated budgetary expense.
What else can be done? We don't believe higher turnpike tolls are the answer. Those costs spread the financial burden unevenly and may eventually reach the point — if they haven't already — at which, as Wereschagin notes, “truckers decide it's more cost-effective for them to trade the turnpike's tolls for a longer travel time on an alternate route." That would lead to more woes.
Fixing our roads isn't going to be easy, but we cannot fail. “We will have to be creative," said state Rep. Joanna McClinton, a Democrat from the southeast corner of the state. “We'll have to figure out a way to get a new revenue stream so the infrastructure is not abandoned."
We can no longer leave this problem for the next Legislature. No more diversions of funds. No more temporary fixes. If Pennsylvania is to have a financially successful future, it must have a solid, well-maintained system of roads and highways.