Pennsylvania Takes Bold Action for Infrastructure But Will Be Hit Hard if Federal Legislation Sits Idle

Why Infrastructure Investment? 

The Americans for Transportation Mobility (ATM) Coalition spoke with Barr on a July morning shortly after he returned from a meeting of the Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center, which Gov. Tom Wolf appointed him to co-chair.

“Our No. 1 [PA Chamber] issue is workforce” says Barr. “One of the hurdles we talk about in workforce, in getting people to work and getting people off the sidelines, is in transportation. Certainly part of that is the affordability of owning a car, but a lot of it is the inability to access public transportation. One of the things that came through loud and clear from our members — when we did comprehensive transportation legislation here when we increased our gas tax —  is it’s not solely roads, bridges and highways. I have members who have operations, for example in Philadelphia, and something like 50 percent or more of their people rely on public transportation to get to work.

“ … Infrastructure is a workforce issue for my members and they are incredibly frustrated when they see delays, when they see detours, when they see roads shut down, etc. It’s unbelievably frustrating for them because they can’t get their people to work, they can’t transport their goods in many cases, and they can’t transport them without incurring damage to their vehicles. These are major issues.”

But the state is working hard to catch up. Through its Road Maintenance and Preservation (MaP) plan, it reported that “more than 2,682 projects were completed or in progress that were made possible or accelerated by Act 89.” It also detailed what would transpire from 2018-19 to 2027-28 to improve infrastructure.

Pennsylvania has a large transportation system that is illustrative of how indispensable each state’s infrastructure is to national safety, economic growth and the public’s quality of life. Its Interstate Highways (the list is long and encompasses 70, 76, 80, 84, 95, 99, 176, 276, 380 and 579) rail, airports, local roads, interchanges, ports and bridges all help move Pennsylvania and the nation forward.

Big projects are often anchored in federal funding or fueled by engagement with key agencies. The dredging and deepening of the Delaware River with a projected economic boost to Philadelphia’s port and the construction and 2018 opening of a long-awaited interchange connecting Interstates 95 and 276 (the PA Turnpike) in Bucks County are several examples.

Tracked data are also spurring awareness about America’s mobility in different areas. A 2014 report released by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), that was based on 2013 National Bridge Inventory Data, pinpointed that Pennsylvania’s bridges were the worst in the nation, triggering media attention. Pennsylvania had both the most (5,218) and the highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges (23 percent). This was from a total of 22,660 bridges.

That ranking has dropped some and now the state has 3,770 bridges, or 16.6. percent, out of 22,737 classified as structurally deficient.

Examinations of how states’ varying infrastructures are faring in today’s policy climate continue. The Pennsylvania Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC) this year offered an intricate look at the state’s transportation challenges. It noted, “if federal appropriations are reduced beginning in Federal Fiscal Year 2021 due to the insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund, then Pennsylvania’s highway and public transportation funding through FY 2029-30 could be reduced by a cumulative $6 billion.”

“Congress doesn’t see it as much as the average person making a daily commute,” says Barr. “Americans may not immediately say infrastructure is their No. 1 concern, but when they are asked, ‘Are you concerned about your commute to work?,’ they’ll say, ‘Yes, I really am. It used to take me 20 minutes and now it takes me 40 minutes.’ Or someone will say, ‘I used to get a bus here or a train here and they’ve cut service back and I can’t do that’ or ‘the bridge I used to take is now closed.’ People recognize traffic congestion, they recognize the damage that the major pothole does, they get that. I think when prompted, people will say, ‘yeah, we really need work done. I’m tired of sitting in traffic.’ And clearly many people can state that.”

The United States now faces another watershed election in 2020. Issues such as the economy, the country’s global role, immigration and healthcare will dominate, but Pennsylvania is a place where unkept promises to fix the nation’s infrastructure can have massive impacts.

Barr has a message for leaders in the nation’s capital: “I’m hopeful, but my concern is it will get to the point where it’s so bad, it’s going to cost us so much more to fix than if we did it now or we did it five years ago. I hope people do come to terms and recognize this: that we can argue all day about what we believe the appropriate role of government is and I get there are disagreements between the right and the left on this, but I think everyone can come to terms with the fact that it is the vital role and a crucial role and an integral role of state government to fund our transportation systems, and that absolutely needs to be done and there should not be any disagreement about that. It needs to be a core function and recognized as a core function.”

“But many states, including ours, have stepped up and done what needs to be done by that government in order to move mobility and transportation forward,” he adds. “It’s time for the federal government to do their job and to step in and do what they need to do to make sure that we’ve got the safe and effective and efficient transportation system that we need. It’s not like we haven’t had the political courage to do it. You guys now have to step up to the plate because we did it already.”

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