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August 13, 2013

GOP Reps.: Bridge repairs should be on state's front burner

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania spends about $15 million a year paying the state’s Department of Transportation workers to clean up trash and mow along state-maintained roads.

That’s the kind of spending that needs a second look before taxpayers ought to be asked to absorb the cost of a gas tax increase, Republican state Rep. Stephen Bloom of Cumberland County said Tuesday.

Bloom is one of the Republicans in the House who broke ranks with the governor, ultimately derailing the transportation plan in June. Bloom is also emerging as one of the most strident conservative voices in the State House. Earlier this month, he attracted national attention by announcing an “academic freedom” bill intended to allow students to defend creationism or debate climate change science in class.

Bloom is now circulating a memo seeking support for a bill that would mandate that PennDOT must spend its money on road and bridge repairs instead of things like bicycle paths and other non-essential programs.

Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch has warned that because the state Legislature failed to pass a transportation funding plan, PennDOT will add weight restrictions to 1,000 bridges. So, when Bloom saw a highway advisory from PennDOT on Twitter about a “highway beautification” project on Interstate 78, he was flummoxed.

“If finances are truly so bad that PennDOT must now close and weight-restrict thousands of unfixed crumbling bridges — an action which will trigger dangerous delays in emergency response times for firefighters, police and other first responders detouring for miles around bridges — then it should be all hands on deck at PennDOT to focus on fixing these bridges before any other projects,” Bloom said.

Republican State Rep. Brad Roae of Crawford County agreed.

“Litter cleanup, bike trails, intersection enhancements, etc. are nice,” Roae said, “but bridges are absolutely essential.”

Steve Chizmar, a spokesman for PennDOT, said the I-78 “highway beautification” is actually litter removal. The highway department used to have a wildflower program, but it was eliminated years ago, he said.

The Transportation Department spends about $8 million a year to have state workers pick up litter along roadways, Chizmar said. That amount would be significantly higher, except there are 7,000 volunteer groups who routinely clean up trash along state roads through the Adopt-a-Highway program. Those volunteer groups remove trash from 16,000 miles of the 40,000 miles of road covered by PennDOT.

But even with that assistance, state workers must regularly hit the pavement to pick up animal carcasses, shredded tires and other potential road hazards, Chizmar said.

“They’re not out there just picking up paper cups,” he said. Litter “is the No. 1 complaint we get.”

In addition to the cost of litter removal, PennDOT spends another $7 million mowing grass areas along and in the median of highways. The agency has tried to cut those costs by mowing less often, Chizmar said.

Bloom said that when it comes to belt-tightening, though, the transportation department could do more.

“Government is about prioritizing and stewarding the hard-earned taxpayer dollars we spend, and if that means choosing between keeping bridges open or business-as-usual “nice to have” projects like litter pick-up, then yes, let’s fix the bridges,” Bloom said.

State Rep. Fred Keller, R-Snyder County, said he thinks PennDOT is doing better when it comes to focusing on priorities. Schoch has made public statements that the transportation department is committed to spending the money it has wisely, Keller said.

“I think PennDOT is serious about it. I don’t know what it’s like all over the state,” Keller said. “But in (northcentral Pennsylvania) they only pick up litter when there’s a crew available to do it. And you have to do something about litter. You just can’t let it lie there.”

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