Bottom line — transportation improvements come at a cost

Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch spoke at a chamber of commerce luncheon in Greencastle. He pointed out the disparity between sources of revenue and construction needs in the state.

Pennsylvania has 14,000 weak bridges and 5,000 that are structurally unsound. That was one piece of disenheartening news PA Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch told 100 guests at the Franklin County Council of Chambers Legislative Luncheon last week. He joined them at John Allison Public House on March 8 to discuss infrastructure issues and funding challenges for the state and county.

"We need to work on 3,000 bridges a year or we lose ground," he said.

PennDOT was not rebuilding interstates, but rather putting overlays on the roadways constructed in the 1960s. The lighter fix didn't hold up as well but was more affordable, he continued. "Revenue changes are needed to expand capacity, but we're in a 'maintenance first' mode."

Schoch, appointed to his post by Gov. Tom Corbett last year, hoped his 28-year engineering background would benefit the state as he sought solutions to transportation woes. He intended to run his department like a business.

Already PennDOT asked employees for ideas on efficiency, and implemented 100 of the 400 received in six months. Schoch was heading a commission to investigate how to raise fees to invest in transportation. In the longterm, that would benefit the economy and the state, which was a keystone for commerce in the northeast market. He was looking at coordination between the state and counties in designing and pre-fabricating bridges to reduce their cost, and setting standards for traffic signals. Plenty of money was available for sidewalks, but he preferred it be distributed through grants. Of the shared projects, he added, "If you need us, we'll be there. We'll get out of the way when it's time."

Schoch said the turnpike commission had a good working relationship with his department, and they were trying to save money to put back into roads and bridges. He expected municipalities and counties to be pleased with the changes, and wanted people to be proud of his agency.

The sobering note, in terms of financing, was when the state compared apples to apples through the years. Users paid half of what earlier generations did toward infrastructure needs, he noted. The fuel tax was not current. If nothing changed, children of today would be saddled with the expense.

"We're not even covering the interest cost," he said.

Schoch was confident alternative fuel sources would become common in the near future, including natural gas and electricity, but they could be difficult or impossible to tax. And he acknowledged it was tough to ask people to pay more now for anything.

He was looking at ways to support the other modes of transportation -  rail, shipping and air. Some expenses could be cut as state agencies reduced overlapping services and government continued its slashing of expenditures. Corbett probably would not announce his plans for transportation goals until next year. However, Schoch expected citizens to pay a greater share. More than half the audience admitted they paid over $100 a month for their cell phone bills. Utility bills were also rising. Transportation should be looked at in the same light, Schoch said.