PennDOT widening projects under increased scrutiny during transit funding uncertainty

(Pittsburgh City Paper photo).

By Ryan Deto

Pennsylvania transportation officials have estimated that they need about $15 billion a year to keep the state’s roads and bridges in good condition, even though there is only about $6.9 billion in funds available. This shortfall has led Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration to propose several methods of raising revenue for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT).

They include phasing out the state’s gas tax — which is shrinking anyway because of less driving due to the pandemic and increased use of electric and fuel efficient cars — and adding tolls to several bridges across Pennsylvania.

Another proposal has been to charge fees to municipalities that don’t have local police forces and use state police, since state police are partially funded through Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle Fund.

State Republicans, who control the state House and Senate, have mostly balked at any of Wolf’s proposals, especially the toll plan, and have suggested increasing fees on electrical vehicles as a way to fill the gap (although their proposals likely won’t raise nearly enough funds).

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But raising revenue isn’t the only way to fill the estimated budget gap, and renewed scrutiny is highlighting road and bridge widening projects that some say are too costly and aren’t necessary.

Jon Geeting co-founded the urbanist political group 5th Square, which is based in Philadelphia. He tweeted on March 15 that people should apply some skepticism to PennDOT’s budget estimates, since they include some projects he believes are wasteful.

“There are all kinds of dubious highway and road capacity expansion projects included in those totals that are unnecessary and shouldn’t happen,” Geeting wrote.

 

Last fall, PennDOT said it needed a $600 million bond this year to maintain work on many projects in its multi-billion long range budget. According to PennLive, about $500 million of that multi-billion dollar budget has been allocated to adding lanes to highways and roads.

Highway widening has come under criticism since studies show that any congestion relief it provides is short lived. Many expensive road widening projects across the U.S. don’t actually lead to less traffic thanks to induced demand. (Basically, if you make a highway more attractive, more drivers will use it and it will become congested again.)

PennDOT is proposing widening Interstate 83 in Harrisburg from four to eight lanes, and is planning to spend an initial allocation of about $100 million to do so. Eventually the widening is projected to cost PennDOT $300 million in total.

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The public interest group U.S. PIRG has called the I-83 expansion a “boondoggle,” noting that an initial project study conducted for PennDOT shows that section of the interstate doesn’t have any congestion issues. The greater Harrisburg area is growing in population, but induced demand would likely encourage more drivers to use the interstate, which could eventually undermine the goals of the widening anyway.

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse told PennLive in 2019 that he didn’t support the I-83 widening plan, and said it would conflict with the city’s goals of reducing driving and traffic fatalities within the state capital.

Requests for comment to PennDOT and the governor’s office were not returned by press time.

Another project closer to Pittsburgh is the widening of Route 30 in Westmoreland County. PennDOT is planning to spend at least $93 million on a 5.5-mile stretch of Route 30 from between Irwin and North Versailles. Unlike the Harrisburg area, Westmoreland County’s population has been shrinking quite rapidly for years.

According to a 2017 TribLive story, PennDOT officials said the widening of the suburban highway was to help cut down on traffic collisions and improve safety.

Studies show that widening highways might actually increase crashes and tend to make roads more dangerous by encouraging drivers to speed. Local officials in North Huntingdon also worried that the widening project would discourage drivers from visiting small businesses along Route 30 by making them harder to access.

Interestingly, PennDOT’s new budget shortfalls are also linked to spending on widening and new highway construction projects, but ones that are out of its jurisdiction. Starting in 2022, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, which runs the state’s toll roads separate from PennDOT, will have a $400 million funding allocation to PennDOT come to an end.

The Turnpike Commission has complained for years about having to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in funds to PennDOT, which are used to fund roads and bridge projects, as well as public transit. The Turnpike Commission has struggled with large debts for years, and has increased tolls to pay those debts down.

But the Turnpike Commission is also undergoing a $6.9 billion widening project to add two lanes to the entire stretch of the I-76 toll road, not to mention highway expansion projects in the Pittsburgh area like the Southern Beltway and the controversial Mon-Fayette Expressway. The commission says the widening project is necessary to upgrade many older sections of I-76, while still maintaining two-lanes of traffic at all times throughout construction. But the Turnpike widening was also deemed a boondoggle by PennPIRG, a state level group related to U.S. PIRG.

Matthew Casale of PennPIRG said in 2019 that the state needs “to start solving our transportation problems, from potholes to pollution, and not waste money on the type of highway projects that should be in our rearview mirror.”

U.S. PIRG says that “investments in public transportation, road pricing measures, and technological measures that help drivers avoid peak-time traffic can often address congestion more cheaply and effectively than highway expansion,” according to its website.

Ryan Deto is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.