One and a half billion dollars in federal economic stimulus funding for transportation may be the silver lining, but it's not thick enough to obscure the large, dark cloud that looms over the future of Pennsylvania's roads and bridges.
In 2007, the Legislature enacted Act 44, a long-sought plan to fund highways and public transit that relied heavily on establishing tolling on Interstate 80, which cuts across the state's northern tier. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission would have operated and maintained I-80 and collected the tolls, in effect renting the road from the state Department of Transportation in exchange for $900 million a year. However, the federal government rejected the state's application.
Without the ability to impose the tolls, the commission's ability to pay the state will be cut in half, to $450 million annually, by June 2010. Since the state's other alternative - leasing the turnpike to a Spanish firm - no longer is on the table, the best hope appears to be a White House that's more receptive to the tolling plan.
Various members of the Legislature have said they believe the Obama administration will allow the tolling, and now is the time for state officials to get their plans ready for resubmission. Joe Brimmeier, CEO for the turnpike commission, said the agency is waiting until new Federal Highway Administration senior staffers are in place, but he shouldn't wait too long.
These funds are necessary to keep the state's roads and bridges safe, and Pennsylvania risks getting lost in the shuffle of major transportation action if it delays in putting in its request.
Congress already has on its agenda this year the task of writing a new multiyear transportation funding bill at a time when the Highway Trust Fund is in need of new revenue.
For the short term, state transportation projects are better off than they would be without the stimulus funding, but that money won't be enough to avert the state's long-term storm.