The state highway bill: Expensive, but necessary now

The legislative language says that Pennsylvania’s transportation bill approved this past week will provide more than $2.3 billion a year for roads, bridges and mass transit system.

The political reality is that, in the words of state Rep. Garth Everett, it was “a tough vote.”

The Muncy Republican was the only state representative from this region voting for the transportation bill, which was defeated 103-98 Monday night then approved 106-95 Tuesday and again Thursday, 113-85, following some pot-sweetening tweaks and cajoling by House leaders.

State Reps. Matthew E. Baker, a Wellsboro Republican, Rick Mirabito, a Williamsport Democrat, and Michael K. Hanna Sr., a Lock Haven Democrat, voted against the bill.

Rep. Baker was particularly concerned about the amount of gasoline tax increases, which he called historic, a burden which he said residents in his Northern Tier district can’t afford.

Rep. Mirabito said the increases amount to a tax hike with no accountability. He added that the mass transit funding emphasis in the bill is unfair to the rural areas of the state, which have less use for mass transit. He said the natural gas industry should share the responsibility with a severance tax to help fund the transportation improvements.

All those points made it a tough vote for the fiscally conservative Everett. But in the end, he assessed the condition of the state’s crumbling roads and bridges, half of which are considered structurally deficient, and believed the transportation needs had to be addressed now.

He called the prevailing wage provision that divided votes “meaningless” as it raises the threshold for the prevailing wage law provisions on projects from $25,000 to $100,000 and most projects exceed the latter range anyway.

The bill fared better in the Senate, where state Sen. E. Eugene Yaw, a Loyalsock Republican, has been pushing hard for transportation improvements. The prevailing wage provision survived the 43-7 Senate vote.

We would love it if there were other means to raise the revenues necessary to pay for road and bridge improvements in Pennsylvania. But those other means haven’t been made apparent. A big-money proposal to sell off the turnpike for private management several years ago was turned down, for instance.

For now, it’s up to the state to take care of its roads and bridges and, for the most part, the Pennsylvania highway system is among the nation’s worst. Something has to be done. And it won’t get less expensive. The state Department of Transportation is planning to spend $5.3 billion a year the next decade to get its roads, bridges and transit system up to speed. The transportation bill will pay for about half that cost.

As Rep. Everett said, this is tough medicine. But the alternative may have be a crumbling highway system decaying beyond repair.