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Guest Editorial: Set responsible priorities for transportation in Pa.

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Amid new reports that numerous structurally deficient Pennsylvania bridges will soon be closed or weight-restricted, there is more than enough blaming and finger-pointing to go around, but not nearly enough common sense.

Meanwhile, we face the dire prospect of our emergency responders — fire trucks, rescue vehicles, utility crews — being detoured around these crumbling bridges onto circuitous alternative routes, losing precious minutes that could end up costing us lives and property. And even in less urgent circumstances, the economics of wasted time and fuel will hurt everyone from farmers hauling crops to school buses hauling kids.

In a state that already spends nearly $7 billion of taxpayer money on transportation every year, how did we come to the brink of closing down vital bridges? In a state where annual transportation spending has doubled over the past 20 years, why is there even one single structurally deficient or functionally obsolescent bridge? In a state that ranks 11th out of 50 in spending per highway mile, how come the quality of our infrastructure is consistently ranked near the bottom?

It’s simply a question of priorities, and it’s time to do the responsible thing and put safety first. For too many years, too many tax dollars have been diverted from essential core infrastructure projects like bridges into non-essential “green” boondoggles and massively inefficient urban transit money-pits.

The Senate’s recent $2.5 billion tax-and-spend transportation bill, which was stopped dead in its tracks by my fiscally conservative House colleagues and me, only proposed more of the same misplaced priorities. Add to this the artificially bloated construction labor costs imposed on taxpayers by Pennsylvania’s archaic prevailing wage laws and you begin to see the problem.

Fortunately, here in the heart of Cumberland County, we’ve already seen a sensible commitment to bridge replacement and reconstruction. PennDOT and Turnpike projects completed since 2010 or currently funded and actively in process include 24 new or fully reconstructed bridges just within the boundaries of the 199th legislative district I represent. That effort is augmented by an ongoing total rebuilding and widening of the Turnpike mainline from the Blue Mountain tunnel to Carlisle, and many other significant highway projects, such as the new world-class I-81 and Route 465 interchange on Carlisle’s western edge.

That’s a great start, but here and around the Commonwealth, there are still deficient bridges that require urgent attention. To make sure our state government intensifies its focus on bridge safety, I will soon be announcing the introduction of legislation I call the Bridge Safety Emergency First Initiative. Through the summer, I will be seeking support for my initiative from other legislators, in time for official introduction of the bill prior to our fall House session. I have also talked with other representatives who are creatively developing their own complementary bills to prioritize bridge funding and construction within a sound fiscally conservative framework.

Under my proposed bill, whenever PennDOT closes or restricts a deficient bridge, that bridge will automatically accelerate to the top of the project list, leapfrogging other less pressing expenditures of existing funds. And for so long as any deficient bridges remain closed or restricted, no state transportation funds will be allowed to be spent on non-essential or aesthetic projects.

Other bills already introduced which I co-sponsor include a proposal for all proceeds from the privatization of the state-run liquor monopoly to be used exclusively for funding necessary road and bridge projects, and a measure to eliminate the duplicative administrative overhead of the Turnpike Commission. And I am the prime or co-sponsor of a number of bills to eliminate or reform Pennsylvania’s unaffordable prevailing wage laws.

We simply have to get our priorities straight. To keep fixing our bridges and improving our roads, we need to focus on responsibly reallocating the taxpayer dollars we collect. We need to focus on effciency and managing our costs. And we need to keep our transportation spending focused on real infrastructure needs, not “nice to have” bells and whistles. It’s time to put bridges before bike-lanes, safety before sound-barriers, and economics before aesthetics.

Rep. Stephen Bloom represents the 199th District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives

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