Local, state officials laud Act 89 transportation funding at hearing in Monroeville
A controversial gas tax has provided a reliable stream of money for road and bridge repairs in Western Pennsylvania while bolstering Pittsburgh’s public transportation system during the five years since it passed, experts and officials told the state Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
Act 89, a transportation bill passed in 2013, generates about $2.3 billion per year for infrastructure improvements, drawing on the nation’s highest gas tax along with other fees and fines that the act increased.
PennDOT has drawn on the money to reduce by about half the number of bridges in poor condition in the state to 3,000 from about 6,000, said Cheryl Moon-Sirianni, PennDOT’s district executive for a region that includes Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties.
“This money has been great. It has allowed our bridge engineers to actually be able to sleep at night,” Moon-Sirianni said.
Moon-Sirianni and others testified in what Committee Chairman John Rafferty said was a routine hearing to make sure state money is being appropriated properly across the state.
Jeremy Shaffer, a Ross Republican who defeated incumbent Sen. Randy Vulakovich in the party’s primary race in May, criticized how high Act 89 has made the state’s gasoline tax.
On Tuesday, Shaffer called for Pennsylvania to stop using the fund to pay about $800 million a year for state police services in smaller municipalities around the state that don’t have their own departments. He said the state should find money for the police from other funds and reduce the tax.
“Every state has a gasoline tax. We need to have a reasonable and competitive gasoline tax,” he said.
Unlike some states, Pennsylvania doesn’t include transportation in its general fund. Shaffer called for Pennsylvania to move transportation into the general fund to improve planning.
Rafferty said that without the gasoline tax, other taxes might be higher. Rafferty noted that Pennsylvania has about 45,000 miles of state-owned highway — more than many other states in the region.
In addition to road and bridge repairs, the Act 89 money supports a “Green Light Go” program that helps municipalities update old traffic signals to improve traffic flows, Moon-Sirianni said. Act 89 dedicated money to support bicycle transit, rail transport and port investments, she said.
“It has had a great impact on the economic growth we’ve had over the last couple of years,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said at the hearing.
He said the infrastructure improvements contributed to the county receiving its highest bond ratings since 1983. Improvements for biking and pedestrian mobility will be important for the city’s future, he said, while upgrades will be necessary to support the Shell ethane cracker plant coming to Beaver County.
The Act 89 money has helped restart the Mon-Fayette Expressway connecting Route 51 to Interstate 376, which had been halted due to lack of money in 2009, said Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Mark Compton.
Before Act 89’s passage, the Turnpike was forced to do basic repairs only and to sift among lots of bidders desperate for the low-value work, resulting in headaches and frustration for everyone involved, Comptain said.
He likened the repairs to repainting an old fence on a farm each year, rather than replacing the fence. Without the act’s funding, he said the Turnpike’s toll increases would have been even higher than they have been.
Without Act 89 funding, the Port Authority of Allegheny County might have to reduce its bus service by 20 percent and would have to cut free rail service in the Downtown Pittsburgh area, CEO Katharine Kelleman said. She said the system would be less able to recover from natural disasters such as landslides and would be poorly equipped to move into the future.
Still, more money is needed, several of the officials said. The state faces a backlog of pavement improvements, and 200 to 250 more bridges get designated “poor” each year, Moon-Sirianni said.
She referenced a plan from Gov. Tom Wolf and PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards that calls for allocating $2.1 billion more for road reconstruction and rehabilitation.
In Pittsburgh, 150 traffic signals have been updated to the new “smart” signals, but 600 outdated signals remain, Ricks said.
And the region faces upcoming challenges of adapting to autonomous vehicles and other changes from new transportation technology, officials said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct information about the county’s bond rating upgrades.
Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Wes at 412-380-5676, [email protected] or via Twitter @wesventeicher.