Putting off short-term disaster, Pa. lawmakers must once again face transportation funding woes this winter

By: - December 4, 2020 11:02 am

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Hundreds of road and bridge projects across Pennsylvania are temporarily funded until early winter on short-term debt as lawmakers negotiate a fix for a pandemic-linked budget gap that shows the holes in Pennsylvania’s transportation funding.

The projects, which range from road resurfacings in Harrisburg and curb cuts in Bradford County to bridge repairs outside Pittsburgh, had appeared on track to be delayed.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration warned legislative leaders in November that funding was set to run out for the projects on Dec. 1 due to lower than expected gas tax revenues.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation asked legislative leaders twice that month to approve $600 million in borrowing to close the gap. When the budget passed Nov. 20, such an authorization was not included.

But Wolf “agreed to a request by legislative leaders to find a short-term solution, operating in good faith that they will resolve this issue at the beginning of the next legislative session,” PennDOT spokesperson Alexis Campbell said in an email.

A delay would not only have pushed back completion, but also led to layoffs for thousands of construction workers at the start of the holiday season, legislative Democrats warned in a letter to their Republican colleagues.

Republicans, however, said they had only been informed of the funding gap at the last minute, and could not round up support for such an extensive expansion of debt.

Instead, citing the “lateness of [Wolf’s] request,” GOP leaders asked for state Treasurer Joe Torsella to explore alternatives, such as providing a short-term loan to PennDOT.

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In a letter back to House leadership, Torsella, a Democrat, agreed to do so, but said he could offer enough to cover roadwork through, at least, early February. 

Further funding would require the Legislature to approve either borrowing or new revenue.

Most of Pennsylvania’s funding for bridges and roads comes from the Motor License Fund, composed of gas taxes and vehicle fees.

All together, PennDOT said the state has lost about $380 million in gas tax revenue. The department has put new projects on hold and moved around funding to fund active projects. But all these moves are stop gaps, said Campbell.

House Republican Spokesperson Jason Gottesman blamed this year’s funding gap on Wolf’s “over broad and unilateral shutdown of the economy.” As people traveled less, they took fewer trips, lowering gas tax revenues.

Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Luzerne, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee last session, dismissed the argument.

“If we had just pretended the virus wasn’t in our ranks maybe there would have been more people who purchased gasoline, but it’s more likely thousands of people would have passed away,” Carroll told the Capital-Star.

Caroll told the Capital-Star that the funding shortfall brought on by the pandemic “highlighted the inadequacies of what existed.”

PennDOT estimates that there is an $8 billion gap every year just between road and bridge needs and revenues. Part of that is because the state has used billions in gas tax dollars to pay for new classes of state troopers, not filling potholes or widening highways.

And all of that doesn’t take into account the cliff state public transit agencies face in 2022. 

That year, a legislatively mandated $450 million transfer of Turnpike toll revenues to transit agencies drops to $50 million. 

The state must then replace that money — whether by raising taxes or cutting other programs — or leave transit agencies to raise fares or reduce service.

The funding house of cards hasn’t improved the state either. In 2018, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the commonwealth’s infrastructure a C- grade overall, including a D+ for roads and bridges and D for transit. 

But even as the state faces financial shortfalls and crumbling concrete, Pennsylvanian’s pay at the pump. The commonwealth has the second highest gas tax in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation, at 57.6 cents a gallon. The Motor Licensing Fund raises roughly $7 billion a year.

Last year, House Republicans floated a strategy to fix Pennsylvania’s transportation funding issues. However, it provided for no new revenue outside of county-level referendums to approve new taxes for specific projects.

Wolf’s administration, meanwhile, has looked at everything from a severance tax on natural gas production and a carbon fee on gasoline sellers to tolling rush hour drivers to fund infrastructure.

Gottesman added that it will be a priority to “review and examine” this year’s transportation funding gap when lawmakers return to Harrisburg in January. How deep that dive will go is unclear.

Carroll noted Harrisburg is hard to predict, but said that more debt seemed the most likely action to meet PennDOT’s short term obligations.

As for long term fixes, “this is not going to be an easy boulder to push up the hill.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.