By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau
An anti-gas tax increase crusading lawmaker has introduced a bill that would force the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to focus on bridge repairs first before spending money on other things.
State Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland County, and other supporters of the legislation, focused most on spending for bike trails as an example of investing that could be curtailed.
Bloom said Pennsylvania ranks 11th in the country when it comes to spending per mile of road.
“We need to prioritize spending,” said Nathan Benefield, policy director for the conservative think tank, the Commonwealth Foundation. “Bloom’s bill is a great first step.”
“Essential things such as bridges must be done before nonessential things like trails get done. Trails are nice, but bridges are absolutely essential,” said Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford County, one of the lawmakers who signed onto Bloom’s bill.
Much of the money that has gone to walking and biking trails through the Department of Transportation has trickled down from the federal government, said Tom Sexton, regional director for the Rails to Trails Conservancy.
PennDOT’s Smart Transportation program paid for work intended to encourage people to move around in ways other than driving.
For instance, in 2011 Johnstown got $1.5 million to create a “gateway” to the downtown at the intersection of Route 56 and Main Street. In 2011, Sunbury got just over $1 million to improve sidewalks and slow down traffic along Wolverton Street. Two years earlier, the same pot of money paid for the construction of the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail between Lewisburg and Mifflinburg in Union County.
The Transportation Department has quietly stopped spending money on these smart transportation efforts, said PennDOT spokesman Steve Chizmar.
Any bike path projects currently in the works are being paid for with federal dollars, Chizmar said.
“In these very lean times, our focus is on the maintenance of our existing assets and trying to extend their useful life,” Chizmar said.
In that context, then, Bloom’s bill main chiefly serve a precursor to the continued debate over transportation funding that will resume when lawmakers return to Harrisburg later this month.
Bloom said that his cosponsors include almost all of the Republican House members who stepped forward to buck Gov. Tom Corbett and oppose transportation funding that depends on raising the price of gas at the pump.
The opposition from that coalition undermined efforts to get transportation funding passed in June.
However, the transportation bill that passed in the Senate would have provided dollars for bike paths through a $80 million to $150 million funding pot set aside for projects other than roads and bridges. The Senate bill also guaranteed that at least $2 million a year would be spent on bike and walking trails. That earmark was pushed for by a coalition of lobbying groups, including the Rails to Trails Conservancy and other health and bicycling safety organizations.
“We’re hoping to get a balanced transportation plan, that would include walking and biking trails and on-road biking as well,” Sexton said.
“At the grassroots level, people want a comprehensive funding for transportation and we hope the legislature listens,” Sexton said.
State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County, was the Democratic chairman of a bicyclists’ caucus formed to support funding for bike paths.
Longietti was recruited by a representative from a group lobbying to make Pennsylvania a healthier place to raise children so that fewer high school graduates fail their physicals when they try to enter military service.
Longietti said that he does not dispute that bridge repair needs to be a priority.
“We can’t continue to be No. 1 in the country in the number of structurally deficient bridges,” he said.
But, that doesn’t mean the state ought to abandon other transportation work, Longietti said.
“To me, it’s an economic development issue,” he said. Younger workers want to live in places that are bikeable and walkable and if Pennsylvania wants to recruit and retain those type of workers, the state is going to need to invest in the infrastructure to meet their needs.”
Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania papers, which include The Meadville Tribune.