Motorists can look forward to road work zones all over the commonwealth when Gov. Tom Corbett signs a $2.4 billion a year transportation funding plan.
Between those work zones, they’ll be able to fly along the interstates. The law that passed the Legislature this week also raises the state’s maximum speed limit to 70 mph.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation will spend up to six months reviewing the interstate system to determine what areas are suitable for 70 mph traffic, said Richard Kirkpatrick, PennDOT spokesman.
The 70 mph provision was a pet priority of Senate President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, and was tacked onto the highway spending plan at the 11th hour.
Much has changed since Pennsylvania set 65 mph as its top speed 18 years ago, Scarnati said in a memo to other lawmakers. “... (A)utomobiles have not only become more fuel efficient but technological advances have also led to better built vehicles which are far easier to handle and drive at increased speeds,” he wrote.
Pennsylvania will be the 36th state with a top speed limit of 70 mph or higher, according to the AAA.
Fourteen states have top speed limits of 75 mph — Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming.
Utah has 80 mph stretches of highway, and Texas has a highway with an 85 mph speed limit.
The AAA doesn’t oppose the move to 70 mph, as long as PennDOT conducts the proper safety studies before designating highways with the higher speed limit, said Ted Leonard, executive director of the Pennsylvania AAA Federation.
That study includes determining the speed at which 85 percent of drivers travel in normal conditions. Transportation experts say it’s better to set the limit at the speed at which motorists actually drive.
Trucker John Fortner of Joplin, Mo., agreed, saying drivers who travel slower than normal traffic pose a hazard. Other drivers will come up on slower-moving vehicles and can potentially rear-end them, he said.
Fortner said the higher speed limit would be welcome on Interstate 80. Traveling through the mountains, it would certainly reflect the speed of vehicles coming down declines, he said.
The state has 700 signs noting the 65 mph speed limit along commonwealth highways, Kirkpatrick said. It costs $245 to replace one of them, but exactly how many will need to swapped out won’t be known until PennDOT determines which areas are safe for 70 mph travel.
The insurance industry does not oppose the increased limits, said Samuel Marshall, president and chief executive officer of the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania.
The federation is more irked about another nugget hidden in this week’s transportation plan: A $2 fee tacked onto the cost of obtaining driving records. That fee is going to pay the company that was hired by the state to put together the Pennsylvania government website.
“If you’re going to charge more for transportation,” he said, “make the money go for transportation.”
It’s one of dozens of fee increases included in the plan. The cost of vehicle inspections, driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations are all being increased. Most of those fees are being tied to the rate of inflation.
Motorists will face those higher fees in addition to the effects of the funding plan’s most controversial aspect — that is, removing an artificial cap on the wholesale tax on gas.
Critics have decried this as a 28 cents-per-gallon tax increase. Transportation officials say that criticism is misleading because the cap will be lifted in phases, so consumers won’t seen an immediate increase in prices at the pump.
In January, the cap will be increased one-third of the way, meaning consumers could see a trickle-down price increase of about 9 cents.
John Finnerty works in the Harrisburg Bureau for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @cnhipa.