The Extreme Cost of Fixing PA Bridges and Highways

Submitted by SadInAmerica on Sun, 03/23/2008 - 8:33pm.

So how much would you pay to get out of that traffic jam under I-95?

And what's your preferred form of payment? Gas tax? Tolls? Sales tax? Income tax?

As aging interstate bridges - such as the I-95 span in Port Richmond - crumble, the immediate focus may be on concrete and steel, but the long-term issue is all about money.

Pennsylvania has spent $3.8 billion since 2003 to repair 1,381 bridges, yet the number of structurally deficient bridges increased - from 5,600 to 6,000. Even with one of the highest gas taxes in the nation - and with a newly enacted plan to impose tolls on I-80 - Pennsylvania can't keep up.

The picture is similarly grim around the nation. States are grappling with a 50-year-old interstate highway system that cost much less to build than it does to maintain. Federal and state gas taxes no longer cover the bill.

"I suspect that, with the latest news from Philadelphia, Congress is going to turn its attention to this in a major way," said C. Kenneth Orski, a public-policy consultant in Potomac, Md. "I do see a rising consciousness about the problems of infrastructure, compared to two or three years ago. And I think the I-95 incident will add fuel to the fire."

Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation estimated last year that it would take $11 billion to fix all 6,000 structurally deficient bridges. That would represent nearly 40 percent of the state's budget.

Nationwide, it would cost $188 billion to repair inadequate and deteriorating bridges, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Ultimately, that money will come from motorists or taxpayers, or both. There are many creative financing proposals - including public-private partnerships such as turnpike leases - but eventually the money comes from two sources: user fees and taxes.

Gov. Rendell, standing beneath the then-closed section of I-95 on Tuesday, said the emergency shutdown of that highway and a closure of the Birmingham Bridge in Pittsburgh last month "are a wake-up for us. . . . This incident clearly demonstrates that we need a greater investment in our infrastructure - here in Pennsylvania and across the nation."

Rendell joined California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in January to create a coalition of state and local officials to seek more federal money for infrastructure.

Rendell wants to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private operator to raise as much as $20 billion for transportation funding. And in his budget proposal this year, he urged borrowing $200 million a year to repair bridges.

That's on top of $192.5 million for bridges from newly enacted Act 44, which calls for higher tolls on the turnpike and installation of tolls on I-80 by 2010.

All told, in the current fiscal year, Pennsylvania will spend $1.2 billion on bridges, and Rendell wants to spend $1.6 billion next year.

In New Jersey, where the state's transportation fund is nearly tapped out, Gov. Corzine wants to raise highway tolls by more than 50 percent every four years until 2022 to fund transportation projects and to pay down state debt.

To those who object to such big hikes - and polls indicate that's most New Jersey residents - Corzine says, pick your poison. The alternatives to those toll increases, Corzine says, would be a 20 percent rise in income taxes, a 2-cent hike in the current 7-cent sales tax, or a 50-cent raise in the gas tax.

In Pennsylvania, a Transportation Funding and Reform Commission appointed by Rendell concluded in late 2006 that it would take a 12.5-cents-per-gallon increase in taxes to raise $965 million a year for roads and bridges. That would give Pennsylvania the nation's highest gas taxes - 63.2 cents a gallon, including federal taxes - according to American Petroleum Institute data.

A national commission established to examine transportation needs recommended in January that the federal gas tax, currently 18.4 cents per gallon, be raised by as much as 40 cents over the next five years. It also called for higher state gas taxes, for increased use of tolls, and for peak-hour "congestion pricing" on highways, which would mean higher tolls during the busiest periods.

There has been little enthusiasm in state capitals or in Washington for upping gas taxes, especially as motorists are already facing much higher prices at the pump because of rising oil costs.

The Bush administration has opposed any fuel-tax increase, arguing instead for toll roads, public-private partnerships such as toll-road leases, and other user fees.

"Replacement of fuel taxes by a variety of direct user charges (which can be varied by time of day, congestion, vehicle characteristics, and location . . . ) can and should be expedited as a matter of national policy," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and two other dissenting members of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission in January, arguing against the majority's recommendation for higher federal gas taxes.

And a bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate to create a National Infrastructure Bank. The bank would borrow $60 billion to use for infrastructure projects of "substantial regional and national significance."

Motorists need to accept that they're going to have to pay more to rebuild bridges and highways, said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Cathy Rossi. But "we have to reevaluate options and make sure we are allocating scarce resources effectively," she said.

"Polls have told us that motorists are willing to fork out more money if they see a visible difference in roads and bridges," Rossi said. "They want improved safety, less congestion, new roads - or at least newly paved roads - for their money. One thing is for sure: The status quo cannot continue."

Paul Nussbaum - March 23, 2008 - posted at

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Submitted by SadInAmerica on Sun, 03/23/2008 - 8:33pm.