A House Appropriations Committee budget hearing descended into partisan bickering after lawmakers blamed each other for rejecting ideas that could generate revenue for the state’s aging transportation infrastructure.
Both Democrats and Republicans agree PennDOT’s funding shortfall results in strains across its system – from crumbling roads and bridges to inefficient mass transit to under-maintained highways and interstates – and, without a new source of revenue, the gaps will only widen within the coming years.
But that's where consensus ends.
“You can be against Restore Pennsylvania, you can deny climate challenges that come with that, but if you don’t want a severance tax and you don’t want Restore PA, then how do you plan on funding this?” Committee Minority Chairman Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, said. “Rather than engaging in this Kabuki dance where we pit the turnpike against roads and bridges against mass transit against the state police, let’s talk about how we are going to fund this.”
“There’s a difference between real solutions and pie in the sky solutions,” said Majority Chairman Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York. “We need a real solution.”
And as the pressure mounts for legislative action, so too does the department's needs.
Acting Secretary Yassmin Gramian told the committee that the state must double the $500 million it spends annually maintaining interstates and highways over the next few years just to keep up with federal mandates.
“We are ramping our spending up increasing to $150 million each year until we get to that $1 billion,” she said. “If the funding level gets stagnant, less money will be spent on smaller roads.”
Gov. Tom Wolf also supports borrowing $4.5 billion to fund his Restore Pennsylvania program, a four-year infrastructure improvement plan that would increase high-speed Internet access, clean up brown fields, repair rural roadways, combat blight and assist with storm preparedness and disaster recovery.
Republicans, however, bristle at the idea of taking on more debt to fill in the department’s budget gaps, which will only worsen when the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s $450 million annual contribution drops to just $50 million in 2022.
“I don’t think the governor is looking to fix this infrastructure problem, because in three years it will be someone else’s problem,” said Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland. “Going out there for a bond that size without looking internally for where we can make that money is not the right way to go."
Compounding the issue is the transfer of $706 million from the Motor License Fund – meant for road maintenance and improvement – to supplement the Pennsylvania State Police. Gramian said the diverted funding means the department spends less on roads and bridges, though she doesn’t discount the service PSP provides PennDOT.
“Bottom line is what’s really important to us, the number one priority of PennDOT is safety and PSP plays a major role in keeping us safe,” she said. “So any reduction in the transfer of funds into the PSP, we are glad to take it, but they need to be made whole too.”
Bradford argued the governor should be given credit for proposing a fee to charge municipalities for state police services that would generate approximately $136 million and relieve some of the pressure on the Motor License Fund. Republicans insist the fee disproportionately impacts the poorer rural communities where state police services are needed most.
“If we are going to do right by our people and our environment and our economy, then we need to get real about the hundreds of millions of dollars it’s going to take,” Bradford said.
Saylor lamented that the Legislature has long ignored proposals to fix the funding gaps and said lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voted for the budgets and bills that underpin the department’s current funding issues.
“I'm not going to accept that certain politicians want to use this for politics,” he said. “I want the governor to come to real solutions for the state police and real solutions for our infrastructure.”
– The Center Square