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If a federal infrastructure bill ever makes its way to Congress and leads to a widening project of Interstate 81 in Pennsylvania, it’s going to have to be about three times the size of the post-recession stimulus — and all of it would need to go toward a single project.

PennDOT is finalizing an update of its I-81 study, which is expected to show that the cost of widening the interstate to three lanes from the Maryland line through I-78 will run about $2.7 to $3 billion.

“We’re expecting to finish the update by the end of the summer, but we’re looking at that ballpark as a total cost for all of the sections,” said Mike Keiser, District 8 director for PennDOT.

Many officials have held out hope that President’s Trump’s campaign promise of a massive federal infrastructure bill will finally materialize and help fund the widening of one of the East Coast’s major commercial arteries.

The last major federal cash infusion to infrastructure was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, an $831 billion spending bill that ultimately delivered about $1 billion to PennDOT. That’s roughly what the federal government provides in transportation aid to Pennsylvania in a given year, Keiser said, essentially giving PennDOT an extra year’s worth of federal cash all at once.

But this pales in comparison to the scale of the I-81 projections.

“If we were to go forward with everything on I-81 based on federal funding, it would need to be a lot more than what we got in 2009,” Keiser said.

Study groups

The planning and funding allocations for state road improvements are done by local transportation study groups, with the Harrisburg Area Transportation Study being the Midstate’s organizing body.

At a recent HATS meeting, Cumberland County Commissioner Jim Hertzler — the county’s HATS liaison — said he broached the issue of what PennDOT would need to do to make sure I-81 projects are “shovel-ready” if and when the federal government comes up with funding.

“The question is what we can do in terms of planning and preliminary design and engineering to make sure that, when the federal government gets around to the funding issue, we’re ready to go,” Hertzler said.

However, design and engineering is typically 5 to 10 percent of the total project cost, Keiser said, meaning that the state would be looking at $135 million just to plan out the project — something that would never happen unless federal funding was guaranteed.

Pennsylvania, as with most states, has tightened up on the number of projects being planned and designed without a guarantee that the projects can actually be built.

“We are fiscally constrained in that respect,” Keiser said. “There has to be a fiscal plan in place where you know you can pay for it.”

One project at a time

For now, that means PennDOT is relegated to doing work piecemeal. The widening of I-81 just south of the Route 581 interchange, completed just a few months ago, was about $19-20 million of work, Keiser said, with another $14-15 million going into widening a similar stretch of I-83 just east of Harrisburg.

Most of this funding is doled out to PennDOT’s supervisory districts each year using the funding allocations from Act 89 of 2013, which reconfigured the state’s gas tax and setup dedicated transportation funds that provide about $2.4 billion of infrastructure money each year.

“Act 89 at least gives us the confidence that we’ll have that amount of money each year,” Keiser said, even though the demand is for much more.

Beyond this, funding would need to be federal, and likely a matter of political will.

There are plenty of signs that those sands are shifting. The United States, and the world economy, is in a period of sustained low interest rates and low inflation, making borrowing cheap and reducing the risk of devaluation.

Further, the Republican Party — despite promises of deficit hawkishness — has committed itself to a $1.5 trillion deficit increase over the next 10 years via the recent tax code overhaul, indicating openness by conservatives to additional red-ink spending.

Hertzler said the cost of the complete widening of I-81 from the Mason-Dixon line to I-78 has roughly doubled from the original estimates in the early 2000s, which assigned a price tag of about $1.5 billion.

“I think we’ve reached a point now where a lot of associated infrastructure doesn’t just need to be repaired, it needs to be replaced,” Hertzler said. “So the question is, the longer we put this off, how much bigger is the price tag going to get?”

That price tag is not just financial — it also comes with a death toll. In just Cumberland County, 36 people have been killed on I-81 in the past six years, Hertzler said, and the county sees an average 270 collisions on the interstate each year, which shut down travel and commerce on a regular basis.

“I think the business community recognizes this is a big problem as well,” Hertzler said. “Hopefully that pressure can help to get us some results.”

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Reporter for The Sentinel.