WILKES-BARRE — State Transportation Secretary Barry J. Schoch brought his familiar plea on behalf of Pennsylvania’s transportation needs to the Wyoming Valley on Wednesday — along with a blunt message for returning lawmakers when they take up the unfinished work of passing a spending plan.
“I hope they will do their jobs,” Schoch said to reporters after his speech to the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce at the Westmoreland Club.
Lawmakers return to Harrisburg on Monday. But even when they were not in session, Schoch toured the state to make his case for a comprehensive plan to maintain aging roads, bridges and other infrastructure amid legislative gridlock that prevented passage of a transportation bill before the summer recess.
He told members of the Wyoming Valley’s business community about the consequences of doing nothing while time and the elements eat away at 45,000 miles of roads, 25,000 bridges as well as ports, railroads and public transit systems.
Failure to properly fund those assets will mean more roads and bridges shut down, tens of thousands of transit passengers left without rides and corporations taking their business to nearby states such as Ohio, Maryland and Virginia that have passed significant transportation bills and invested in facilities such as ports, Schoch said.
“When (business leaders) come see me, I can’t say that. And that’s putting us at a competitive disadvantage,” he said.
It has been a contentious year for transportation issues in Pennsylvania.
Passing a comprehensive funding package was a key policy priority for Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. The state Senate, divided between 27 Republicans and 23 Democrats, approved a $2.5 billion plan by a 45-5 vote on June 5.
But progress stalled when the issue reached the House, where Republicans wrangled over a plan to pare down Senate Bill 1.
The 203-member House is dominated by 110 Republicans, with 92 Democrats in the minority. The GOP lost one member — and a key figure in the transportation funding battle — when Dick Hess, R-Bedford, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, died Sept. 6.
Senate Bill 1 faced a rough ride before the committee, as conservative Republicans, including Hess, spoke out against proposed increases in license, registration and other driver fees approved by the Senate, as well as a proposed $100 surcharge on traffic violations to generate transit funding.
“Even if you’re a fiscal conservative, and you say, ‘I don’t like raising fees, I don’t like increasing costs,’ these are assets. If you’re a fiscal conservative, it still benefits you to make these investments,” Schoch said.
When lawmakers failed to pass a bill, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials took action late last month, authorizing new or added weight restrictions for about 1,000 structurally deficient bridges statewide, including 39 in PennDOT District 4’s six-county region and five in Luzerne County.
“Every mile that a driver has to drive around a posted bridge adds more cost” to doing business, he said.
Failure to pass a bill during the summer also robbed PennDOT of another construction season during which to begin badly needed work on many projects, Schoch said.
State Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Avoca, a member of the transportation committee who attended Wednesday’s speech, predicted that the “politically feasible” parameters likely lie between $2.5 billion, as approved by the Senate, and a $2 billion plan as had been favored by some in the House.
But arriving at agreement on the funding particulars has thus far been more controversial than the dollar figure itself, and Carroll said it was too early to speculate on what the renewed debate will look like, with the new session yet to begin.
Schoch relayed an anecdote from state Sen. John Blake, D-Archbald, who reported to him the thoughts of a Monroe County businesswoman on how to achieve consensus.
“Just close ‘em all right now, and you’ll have a transportation bill in half an hour,” the woman reportedly said of aging bridges.