STATE COLLEGE – On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Transportation Funding and Reform Commission revealed their initial findings to the public on the transportation funding crisis facing the state.
The crisis presented by Allen D. Biller, Secretary of Transportation commission chair, appeared grim. The costs to maintain or update transit would cost millions of dollars, while the cost to maintain or update highways and bridges in the state was millions to billions of dollars.
After the findings were released, the members of the commission present let the public speak on the issue.
“Today is a day we want to hear from you,” said Biehler to the audience.
And over the next few hours, people took the podium and voiced their problems and possible solutions, if any.
Eric Wolf, general manager of AMTRAN in Altoona, was the first to speak.
“To my knowledge this is the first time an independent committee looked at transportation in the Commonwealth,” said Wolf.
Wolf noted that some ideas presented by the commission, such as raising the gas tax or pushing for local contributions, would not work in Altoona, a third-class city.
When asked about local contributions to help offset state funding, Wolf said he was dealing with the reality of the situation.
“The money is not there,” said Wolf.
Wolf was not the only transportation authority representative to speak before the commission. Representatives from Centre Area Transportation Authority, the Cambria County Transit Authority and others brought up issues dealing with sprawl and the difficulty of expanding services in sprawl areas with dwindling funds. Another issue the transit representatives discussed was the problem of not keeping up with maintenance in offer to keep up with operating costs.
Dr. Paul Simpson, internal medicine, said that this crisis coincides with other crises around the area and nation, such as obesity, sprawl, and fuel shortages. Simpson called for more pedestrian and bicycle oriented communities and PennDOT’s help in constructing them.
Simpson noted that PennDOT seems to have no problem taking private land to build highways, but because it violates property rites, they will not help build walkways on private property.
Simpson called for the state to create alternative transportation facilities, as well as other other items.
Herbert Cole Jr. of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania called for a connection between transportation and land use. Cole called for funding that is both reliable and predictable, an statement that was echoed by many in attendance.
The issue of connecting land use and transportation was another issue discussed by others who took the podium.
While public transit comments took up the majority of the forum, a few people discussed the problems facing highways and bridges, and how reform might impact them.
One person, Steve Busnes, was there representing the Transportation Construction Industry Pact.
“We know about bridges and highways,” said Busnes, who went on to say that mass transit and bridge/highway programs should not have to compete for resources.
“The vitality of our state relies on a sound infrastructure,” said Busnes.
“Vehicle traffic has gone up,” added Busnes. “We have a 50-year old interstate highway system. The sooner we improve capacity the better off we’ll be.”
On the issue of funding, Busnes said, “There is no one answer to this.”
Another possible solution that was presented to the highway/bridge problem were private/public partnerships, in which another entity would lease or purchase roadways or highway systems. In many of the comments on this solution, those who spoke said the money gained must then be put back into highways and bridges.
The commission also heard from riders of public transit, including those with physical limitations. One woman, Annie Harris, noted that public transit was vital to her life.
“I’m here to beseech you for mass transit funding,” said Bob Williams, a visually impaired resident of State College.
The lone speaker representing Clearfield County was Susan Reed, district manager of the Clearfield County Conservation District. Reed brought attention to the dirt and gravel road program, not just in Clear field County, but in other counties as well.
Reed noted that through the program the CC CD has stabilized 26 streams along 33 miles of dirt roads, and there are still 115 streams still eligible.
Currently, the CCCD’s dirt and gravel road has a fund of $67,000, with nine requests at over $100,000.
Read said the CCCD was joining conservation districts statewide to increase funding.
After the session, Biehler offered some comments.
“I’m pleased with the comments from everyone,” said Biehler, who noted the broad range of issues that were discussed.
Biehler stated there was a lot to be learned from this as they moved forward.
“It’s critical we have a long-term solution to this problem,” said Biehler.