County transportation plan underscores dire need for more funding

The proposed 20-year transportation plan for Lycoming County unveiled at Tuesday’s Williamsport Area Transportation Study meeting acted as a sort of weathervane. It indicates the county’s good investments in infrastructure, the stark effects of the nation’s lack of such investment and the impending collision course if nothing is done – otherwise known as the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good: While there are 43 structurally deficient state-owned bridges in the county, funds in the county’s Transportation Improvement Program are paying to fix or replace 25 of those bridges, said county Transportation Planner Mark Murawski, who authored the WATS Metropolitan Planning Organization 2013-33 Long-Range Transportation Plan.

New dollars in the plan will go toward the rest of the bridges, he said.

“Our plan is to not have any structurally deficient bridges,” Murawski said. “We’re well on our way there.” He noted that is not the case in most other areas in the state.

Most, 85 percent, of traffic travels the National Highway System, and the county only has one structurally deficient bridge on that system. “No other county in Pennsylvania can say that,” he said.

This note of coming success “validates that the investments we made in past transportation systems were good: Where most of the traffic is in roads and bridges, those are in great shape today,” he said. Conversely, roads and bridges in low-volume traffic routes are not in such great condition.

“It affects the majority of people in a positive way. We can’t get to everybody, but we get the most bang for our buck,” he said.

This countywide success creates an unusual problem, however. Federal legislation, MAP-21, requires federal transportation dollars be spent on the most-used highways part of the National Highway System.

“We have to spend half of our (federal) money on bridges that are already in good shape,” Murawski said. “When we have a credible plan put together locally, the federal government should listen to it. I think I know my roads better than the guys in Washington.”

The bad: The nation’s longtime “disinvestment” in infrastructure has resulted in a halt in new growth. The county’s proposed transportation plan “doesn’t build a new road or widen a road anywhere,” Murawski said. “It takes the roads and bridges we have and fixes them to a good state of repair, so they’re safe and don’t damage people’s vehicles.

“That’s what we’ve become. That illustrates the nation’s disinvestment in infrastructure, and puts it in black and white.”

There aren’t dollars attached to infrastructure investment strategies, he said. He compared transportation to a utility: “If you want electricity, you have to pay the electric bill,” he said.

What funds transportation projects are gasoline taxes, not property or sales taxes, nor from the general fund, he said. The federal gas tax hasn’t changed since 1993, holding at 18 cents a gallon. The state gas tax has been 31 cents a gallon since 1997, he said.

“Stagnant money equals a stagnant transportation system that doesn’t keep up with growth,” Murawski said.

People will end up paying either way, whether from gas taxes or car repairs from rotten roads – and car repairs are more costly, he said.

“There’s no free ride,” he said.

The ugly: If the state House doesn’t pass the state Senate’s $2.5 billion transportation plan (Senate Bill 1), money that would go toward the state’s proposed Decade of Investment would become a decade of destruction, he said. The bill would fund 62 more transportation projects at $113 million by increasing the gas tax, drivers license renewals and more.

“These projects that are in these plans aren’t fluff … this is the bread and butter to hold our system together,” Murawski said.

If the bill doesn’t pass, projects will still likely get done, but it would take the full 20 years instead of 10, he said.

Currently, 78 projects are funded under the Transportation Improvement Program, but an additional $31 million is needed to finish those projects, he said. No new projects can be added until those are paid for.

If the proposed county transportation plan is approved as expected in December, its projects will be considered for future funding.

Here’s a list of the plan’s major projects:

U.S. 15 safety project where a median barrier is added from South Williamsport Borough to the 54/15 intersection will be completed next year

Reconstruction of the following major streets in Williamsport: $700,000 for design work on Third Street between Campbell and Basin streets starting next year; $920,000 for design, utilities and right-of-way for Fourth Street in Newberry

Reach Road improvements from Arch Street to the Industrial Park will be done next year, including restoration work, pavement, resurfacing, selective widening and better drainage

The Route 220 corridor study will be done next year, and once the results are known, those projects may be added to the plan

The Route 220 and 405 Hughesville intersection study is underway and recommendations will come out next year

The interchange between Route 220 and West Fourth Street where it will be a full-direction interchange

Other projects in the plan, but aren’t eligible for transportation funding, are the Williamsport Regional Airport’s proposed terminal airport terminal and its associated runway and safety improvements; investments in rail sidings; and an interconnected trail system for bicyclers and pedestrians in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The public comment period for the proposed plan is Nov. 1 to Dec. 15.