State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Fund Fight: Transportation Vs. Troopers

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Feb 4, 2016 7:12 PM
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Two years after state lawmakers voted to hike driver fees and let the gas tax increase to pay for roads and bridges, they're facing a shortfall in available money for construction projects.

Trade groups say the top culprit is the diversion of dedicated transportation funds into the Pennsylvania State Police budget.

"Now this is nothing against State Police," said Eric Madden with the American Council of Engineering Companies of Pennsylvania. "We wholly advocate for what they do. They do a Herculean task and I do believe that they actually need more for what they have to do. But when we compete for the same dollars... it tends to be a little difficult."

Madden testified Tuesday at a hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee. Most of the panel's members know the recent story of Pennsylvania's transportation funding.

In late 2013, after years of political wrangling, the Legislature approved higher fees for things like driver's licenses and vehicle registrations, as well as the highly controversial uncapping of the state's gas tax. The revenue generated, lawmakers agreed, would help repair crumbling bridges and busted-up roads.

But increasingly, trade groups say, lawmakers are siphoning that dedicated funding to cover another expense with broad popular appeal: State troopers who patrol the state's roads and bridges.

The diversion of transportation funding to the State Police began in the Ridge administration, according to the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association. But if it's a competition between builders and troopers, as Madden said, the troopers have been winning lately.

"The diverted amount has increased by an average of 8.8 percent annually since 2002," said Robert Latham, with the Associated Pennsylvania Constructors.

At that rate, Latham added, the funding collected from higher fees and the uncapped gas tax "will evaporate over the next five years."

PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards said funneling transportation funds into State Police "is definitely a challenge" for planned road and bridge projects.

But in her written testimony to lawmakers, Richards said the Corbett administration "over-promised" what could be accomplished with the money generated by the hike in motorist fees and the uncapped gas tax. The state is estimating a transportation funding shortfall of $6 billion over 12 years of planned projects.

Corbett's transportation secretary Barry Schoch, now at the firm McCormick Taylor, said he's "pretty strongly convinced" the real reason for the spending gap is that the State Police are eating up a larger share of transportation funding.

"To me this is simply an issue of a choice and a consequence," said Schoch.

"They've already made a decision to vote for a contentious transportation funding bill," Schoch added, speaking of legislative supporters of the 2013 law. "If they made choices to erode the benefits of that decision, well that's another thing."

Published in State House Sound Bites

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