Senator’s bill would fund more bridges

It’s clear Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges are in a state of disrepair, leading the country in structural deficiency with 5,543 out of 22,667 total bridges structurally deficient. Lycoming County alone has 108 structurally deficient bridges.

To help combat the problem, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, will introduce with Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., an enhancement of a bill passed last year that gave an additional 15 percent of funding for bridges owned by counties and municipalities; there are 65 in the county. That resulted in Pennsylvania receiving $74 million for those bridges, more than any other state besides California, Casey said.

This year, he hopes to increase the amount to 25 percent, a $30 million increase for Pennsylvania.

These bridges – more than 200,000 in the U.S. – are called “off-system bridges,” as they aren’t on the Federal-aid highway system, but are owned and operated by local governments.

Casey’s legislation works as an amendment to legislation enacted last year, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), which requires federal transportation dollars to be spent on the most-used highways part of the National Highway System, said Lycoming County Transportation Planner Mark Murawski.

Because MAP-21 essentially limits federal funding to those highways, Casey’s legislation established a dedicated revenue stream for county-owned or “off-system” bridges.

Casey voted for MAP-21. “Voting for MAP-21 was a step in the right direction; to vote against it would be to make a terribly difficult problem even worse,” Casey said.

Murawski called MAP-21 restrictive because over half of federal funding goes to four roads in the county: Interstate 180 and routes 15, 2014 (Main Street in Muncy) and 220 from the Clinton County line to Pennsdale, he said.

“So right now, over half of the federal money coming to the county is mandated (by MAP-21) to be spent just on those roads, and we have several thousands of miles of roads here,” Murawski said.

While Casey’s amendment softens the blow of MAP-21, some issues remain. The amendment doesn’t actually increase the size of the funding pie, but gives off-system bridges bigger slices, Casey said.

Although Murawski called it a “great piece of legislation,” he also noted it “creates a seesaw effect” by shifting the problem around. “We need a bigger pie,” Murawski said. He noted Casey does champion the state’s causes, and it takes not just one person but all of Congress to create change.

Murawski elaborated, “The concern is, if you go from 15 percent to 25 percent without expanding the entire federal transportation pie, you’re just shifting problems around; so you’re fixing off-system bridges, but on-system ones might be getting shortchanged. Somebody ought to be looking at the whole system.”

Another issue is funding flexibility. Local government should have the authority to decide where the funding should apply since they know best where it’s most needed, Murawski said, rather than the federal government dictating where it should go.

“Don’t mandate to us, ‘You can only spend your money on this road or that bridge,'” Murawski said. “But whatever hand we’re dealt, we’ll play.”

Casey said this is an issue that’s been neglected far too long, which is why the federal government is allocating funds in this way. Regarding shifting the problem around, Casey said since bridges pose a safety issue, they got top priority.

The county has not used its 15 percent allocation from Casey’s amendment last year, but it will be part of the Williamsport Area Transportation Study by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, Murawski said. PennDOT, county and municipal officials reside on that organization, and determine how to spend transportation dollars by identifying potential projects for federal and state funding.

The county is in the process of a comprehensive update to the entire transportation improvement program, and will look at all the money coming in and where it should go, he said.

By late spring, they will have public comment, and an approved list of projects by July 2014.