The Pennsylvania Legislature failed to pass a transportation funding plan before the summer recess.
Now, weeks before lawmakers return for the fall session, Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation secretary says funding uncertainty will force the agency to restrict traffic on bridges across the commonwealth starting this month.
In the absence of new money, PennDOT will begin to impose weight limits this month on up to a thousand bridges from a list of possibilities including 11 in Philadelphia, 40 or so in Montgomery and Chester counties and more than 50 in Bucks.
To keep key spans open normally, for instance the Spring Garden Street bridge over the Schuylkill in the middle of Philadelphia, requires trade-offs to extend the life of more small bridges, said Erin Waters of PennDOT.
“These are decisions we need to make. These are very real consequences of not addressing our issues that have been documented for years now,” Waters added.
So, is the timing of the bridge warnings, as the Legislature returns for the fall session, a fortuitous accident? Could PennDOT be calculating that seeing new weight limits posted will give lawmakers pause on their journeys back to Harrisburg?
If that’s the plan, no one is willing to admit it.
However, Dick Voith, the head of former Gov. Ed Rendell’s Transportation Funding and Reform Commission, says PennDOT could certainly use every tool at its disposal. Gridlock in the Legislature, he said, looks worse than it ever has in the 30 years he’s followed the news from Harrisburg.
“What has always happened is, at the end, there’s been bipartisan agreement after a lot of fighting and bickering, and at least an adequate bill was produced in time to stave off really serious problems,” he said. “This year, I’m not seeing the level of discourse that’s needed to generate a rational bill to fund transportation.” Proposed funding formulas included raising fees for motorists and increasing gas taxes — which few lawmakers were eager to support.
But perhaps PennDOT’s weight restriction notices, which could add up to 26 miles to the commutes of heavier vehicles that will have to avoid the flagged bridges, will resonate more loudly outside the State Capitol.
“Hopefully the average motorist who might be impacted as a result of the restrictions will weigh in with their respective house and senate members,” suggests state Rep. Michael Caroll, who sits on the Assembly’s Transportation Committee.
That is to say, if the weight of their trucks and school buses is limited, at least motorists can still weigh in with their opinions on the inconvenience.