FILE - Pennsylvania Turnpike

The Pennsylvania Turnpike

Pennsylvania needs about $5.5 billion to bring the state’s highways, bridges and public transit up-to-date, according to a report released by the House Transportation Task Force, and lawmakers are supporting a path to ease the financial woes.

The Task Force, appointed in July by House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, met with transportation officials, held 35 conference calls with stakeholders and reviewed studies and lawmaker testimony in compiling its 44-page report.

Some of the key takeaways:

• Twenty-three percent, about 3,500, of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient. While they are safe to cross, more restrictions will be needed, which could affect rural farmers who use the bridges to transport goods. About $1.8 billion is needed to improve the state’s bridges.

• Traffic congestion is a problem on the highways near larger cities. With truck traffic expected to double in 25 years and the Federal Highway Trust Fund projected to be insolvent by 2021, the state needs about $2.5 billion.

• Public transportation needs about $1.2 billion in funding, particularly for the state’s Medical Assistance Transportation Program that takes Pennsylvanians with disabilities to doctor’s appointments, hospitals and pharmacies.

The state has faced a long list of funding challenges over the years. Revenues from gas sales have dropped, and the state has lost an estimated $100 million in buying power, according to the report.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale revealed that about $750 million per year of money from the Motor License Fund goes to the Pennsylvania State Police budget.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is saddled with debt after the federal government denied the state permission to place toll booths on I-80. The turnpike raised tolls but is still $13 billion in debt, according to the report. The turnpike has a $450 million annual obligation to PennDOT, but that will drop to $50 million per year from 2022 to 2057.

Rep. Lori Mizgorski, R-Allegheny, said she will introduce legislation that will curb the turnpike’s debt obligation.

“The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) has been forced by law to raise tolls for 11 straight years, while causing the turnpike to reduce its rebuilding program by 13 [percent], forcing their debt levels to more than $13 billion,” Mizgorski said. “The turnpike commission needs to make critical investments to power economic growth across the Commonwealth and provide relief to its customers from excessive toll increases.”

Members of the Task Force, chaired by Rep, Martina White, R-Philadelphia, say diverting transportation funds to state police needs to end. They are also suggesting legislation that will give cities and counties ways to raise money for transportation projects.

“We may be a diverse state with competing rural and urban interests, but we rely on one another to be competitive nationally and internationally,“ White said. “We are ‘one’ Pennsylvania that shares a vision for a modern transportation infrastructure.”

Other suggestions in the report include an increase in the use of public-private partnerships to fund infrastructure work, taking at least some of the burden off taxpayers.

"Based on our experience, this not only leverages private investment, but creates innovative ways to complete projects, improving efficiency," the report states. "An example of this is the Rapid Bridge Replacement project where PennDOT focused on bridges of similar size and design so components could be mass produced resulting in time and cost savings to taxpayers. The costs and workload were lower so that PennDOT could focus on other important projects."

Consolidated permitting for large projects is another proposal from the report, which argues that it would speed permitting and simplify oversight, allowing PennDOT to focus more on other priorities. It also proposes that counties should be given more flexibility to fund transportation projects themselves and that the state should encourage the use of "county infrastructure banks," which the report says Dauphin County has used successfully.