In its quest for safer streets, Harrisburg budgets $60K for Capitol lobbying muscle

By: - February 19, 2019 6:30 am

An effort to reduce pedestrian fatalities in Pennsylvania’s capital city may soon have a new, high-powered ally.

Harrisburg City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a 12-month, $60,000 contract with Maverick Strategies, a prominent lobbying shop and GOP campaign consultant.

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse told councilors last month that he wants Maverick to guide the city in negotiations with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Papenfuse said he is anticipating a “series of confrontations with PennDOT” as his administration seeks approval for a raft of infrastructure projects, many of them on roads heavily trafficked by commuters.

Harrisburg first hired Maverick under a 12-month contract last year, when state legislators were considering a financial recovery bill for the city.

But campaign finance data show that the firm’s relationship with Harrisburg’s mayor go back further than that.

Maverick’s Strategy PAC donated $500 to Papenfuse’s 2017 re-election campaign, according to year-end campaign finance reports. State campaign finance records show that Strategy PAC makes similarly sized donations to state house candidates during election years.

Papenfuse didn’t mention the campaign donation when he first asked council to hire Maverick in 2018. But he did say that Maverick’s ties to GOP lawmakers could help local leaders, who are all Democrats, make inroads with the Republican-dominated state House and Senate.

That strategy ultimately proved sound. In October, state lawmakers approved a bill designed to help Harrisburg exit Act 47, Pennsylvania’s oversight program for financially distressed cities.

Papenfuse told council that the victory wouldn’t have been possible without Maverick’s help. This year, he wants to broaden Maverick’s portfolio to reflect the city’s current legislative priorities, including its campaign to calm traffic and improve pedestrian safety on state-owned roads.

Vehicle-related deaths quadrupled in Harrisburg from 2013 to 2017, according to PennDOT data published on the city’s Vision Zero website. Two thirds of the incidents in Harrisburg involved pedestrians, cyclists, or motorcycle passengers.

Click to view an interactive map of vehicle crash data in Harrisburg. Source: City of Harrisburg Vision Zero project.

Many crashes occurred on roads that support high volumes of commuter traffic. Those roads — Cameron, Forster, Front, and State streets —  are owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which, through PennDOT, must sanction any changes to their traffic patterns.

That includes Harrisburg’s current proposal to eliminate two lanes of traffic on upper State Street, a five-lane road that connects downtown Harrisburg to eastern suburbs.

City officials want to replace the traffic lanes with protected bike lanes. They also want to install safety features, such as a median refuge for pedestrians.

A segment of Harrisburg's proposed redesign for upper State Street, which connects downtown Harrisburg to western suburbs.
A segment of Harrisburg’s proposed redesign for upper State Street, which connects downtown Harrisburg to western suburbs. Source: Harrisburg Vision Zero Project.

Harrisburg also needs approval from PennDOT to eliminate a right-hand turn lane on Forster Street. Currently, that lane allows motorists approaching Harrisburg on the Harvey Taylor Bridge to merge south onto Front Street.

Harrisburg's proposed design for Front and Forster Streets would eliminate a right-hand slip lane that allows traffic from the Harvey Taylor Bridge to merge on to Front Street.
Harrisburg’s proposed design for Front and Forster Streets would eliminate a right-hand slip lane that allows traffic from the Harvey Taylor Bridge to merge on to Front Street. Source: Harrisburg Vision Zero Project.

In 2017, the intersection of Front and Forster was the site of more than 50 vehicle crashes, according to PennDOT data. Those crashes resulted in 39 injuries to motorists.

Eliminating the right-hand “slip” lane would reduce the distance pedestrians must travel to cross Forster Street. Median refuge spots would also protect pedestrians from traffic mid-crossing.

The concepts for Front and State streets were designed to enhance pedestrian safety. But since they stand to reduce travel lanes and alter traffic patterns for motorists, city officials acknowledge they may generate backlash from commuters who travel by car.

Papenfuse has made pedestrian safety and multi-modal transportation projects a hallmark of his second term in office. In public appearances and interviews throughout 2018, he said that safe, walkable streets are critical to Harrisburg’s long-term economic development.

“These are political issues that would benefit from a lobbyist assisting us,” Papenfuse told city councilors last month, when he appeared with Maverick principals Ray Zaborney and Krystjan Callahan.

City officials also oppose PennDOT’s proposal to widen Interstate 83 to 12 lanes in South Allison Hill and Shipoke neighborhoods. They say the expansion would demolish taxable property and increase noise and congestion.

Papenfuse said last month that Harrisburg leaders have already made their opposition clear to PennDOT. They will continue to lobby against the proposal with Maverick’s help.

Lobbying PennDOT won’t be Maverick’s only directive from Harrisburg this year. Papenfuse also wants the firm to help the city liaise with its new five-member financial oversight board, which was a condition of its exit from Act 47.

He also hopes the firm can help the city secure competitive state infrastructure grants and guarantee the $5 million allocation that Harrisburg receives from the commonwealth each year for fire and emergency services.

Papenfuse did not return requests for comment on Monday.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.