‘We Were Counting On Plans That Never Materialized:’ PennDOT Details Funding Problems And Possible Fixes

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HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) — During its annual budget hearing Tuesday, the commonwealth’s Department of Transportation told House lawmakers it’s mulling ways to fix short-term funding problems –– without asking for more state money.

Transportation Secretary Yassmin Gramian did not sugarcoat that PennDOT is short on cash as she answered hours of lawmaker questions. COVID-19 meant fewer drivers on the roads last year, which meant fewer people paying driver’s license and vehicle fees as well as gas taxes.

By one estimate, motor fuel taxes plunged by 30 percent –– or $90 million –– in April alone.

A road passing beneath the Delaware River Bridge is barricaded in Bristol, Pa., Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. Tens of thousands of drivers are being told to expect “extreme” delays for weeks because the bridge connecting Pennsylvania and New Jersey had to be shut down over a cracked steel truss. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

“The [road] traffic was at 40 to 45 percent of the normal traffic…in comparison to the prior year,” she told the House Appropriations committee.

As the year went on, Gramian said forecasts from the Department of Revenue showed

PennDOT was going to be short as much as $800 million of what it usually collects in taxes and fees. Just to make it through, the department ultimately had to ask lawmakers for permission to borrow $475 million just days before the current state budget was enacted.

“Coming into November, we still thought that we were going to have a shortfall of revenue of $600 million based on all the forecasts that we received on everything. However, we were counting on a lot of plans that never materialized,” Gramian said.

When PennDOT did receive a revenue boost from the second round of federal stimulus aid, Gramian said it came too late to avoid what happened in November. It had also been waiting on other one-time sources of revenue, like a CARES Act-style package geared toward highway work, that didn’t end up coming.

Rep. Jesse Topper (R-Bedford County) said to avoid a similar situation this time around, PennDOT should let the legislature know about any dire financial straits it’s facing well before the end of June, when the final budget for the next fiscal year is supposed to be approved.

“From a legislative standpoint as we get ready for the budget, those conversations take months and not hours,” Topper said. “The more information we can get and the sooner we can get it, the better off we’ll be.”

Secretary Gramian said PennDOT is not short on ideas to stabilize revenue. Managed lanes and driver fee increases are both on the table, but so is one idea the department terms an immediate fix: temporary tolls on highway bridges in need of repairs.

PennDOT has eyed nine bridges throughout the commonwealth –– each decades old and needing replacement –– that could be fixed within a few years if tolls of a dollar or two each were set up.

The trouble is, tolling probably couldn’t start until 2023. Plus, that money wouldn’t be able to be used to address the needs of struggling mass transit systems and other infrastructure. The legislature is racing against time to get new state funding in place for systems like SEPTA, Philadelphia’s public transport system, before the current funding model expires next year.

House lawmakers of both parties say constituents are not enthusiastic about new tolls. Rep. Leanne Krueger (D-Delaware County) is among them. She spoke about a proposed fee for using the I-95 Girard Point bridge.

“I do have some pretty serious concerns. This is the only bridge in southeastern Pennsylvania. It is a high traffic route,” Krueger said.

Rep. Tim O’Neal (R-Washington County) said he’s worried about the congestion tolls could cause, as they’d have to be set up around the area where the new bridge would be built.

“My constituents, if they’re driving to the city of Pittsburgh, will have to pay a toll both north and southbound on I-79 for the privilege of driving through a construction zone for three to four years,” O’Neal said.

Gramian said temporary tolls may be the best shot PennDOT has at fixing those bridges quickly. Plus, she said, things like how much the state would charge drivers will still need to be fleshed out before anything can happen.

“All these factors will be considered when we are actually doing the evaluation of when, and how much, and where to put the [tolls.]”