Tuesday, October 17, 2006

notes from Oct. 13th meeting with PennDOT Secretary Al Biehler

Notes from this evening are as follows, hope I got them down well;

Points of discussion from Secty. Biehler
- The 1980s saw the Billion Dollar Bridge Bill, expenses on PennDOT workforce has been steadily decreased since that time, we continue to increase the amount of money that we spend on bridges, yet we continue to have great challenges with being able to
- 40 or so fixed route transit systems in PA in urban and some rural areas. Philly is the 6th largest system in the country, Pittsburgh is about 19th; State College has the third largest system in the state. There are about 30 other funding grantees beyond that, including the 35 counties which have disabilities transit programs - we will expand that number to 40 or 42 this year.
- Flex funding was used at the most recent point of crisis, but at that same time the Governor made that decision, he established the Transportation Funding Reform Commission
- Commission has had a 5 city public outreach program, we're finishing our recommendations by November 15 and this is the time frame for our final work. We've received much input on items that were not included in our initial guide and that's been a benefit.
- Transportation investment & land use are critically tied, from what the Transportation Funding Reform Commission is coming to believe.
- We have to develop policies for land use and for transportation that afford us a more sustainable system, where we are not required to spend new transportation construction dollars pursuing new development needs at a time when we cannot
- We perhaps should begin focusing on focusing PennDOT's role and work on more walkable transportation projects and planning, the sorts of roles that develop a more sustainable transportation policy and system.

Questions period
Q - Federal transportation policy:
- Federal transportation policies are ridiculous. Why is it not making inner city rail systems just as much of a priority as new interstates? Suburban development patterns have built a systemic pattern that makes it more and more difficult to provide public transportation systems - the Dulles Access road in suburban DC is a good example of these challenges. There are discussions with now trying to make that road a public transit way, but the developments there are not conducive to walkable access, as would be an urban area, even if you were to make it a public transit-based corridor. That's a systemic problem. There's hope that there is a growing, new thought process that is changing toward a more sustainable system, not just in Pennsylvania, but including in key administrators in systems across the nation.

Q - Shared Ride Program shows the myth that transit funding is only Philly & PGH - how do you change that perception and build a political base for transit beyond that myth?
- PennDOT tries to play the role of promoting the existence of transit in some form in every single county. There's a guy named Mike who runs a shared-ride service in rural North Central PA that covers multiple areas; he's had to cut back service levels because he's had to apply capital costs to operations and now his vehicles are falling apart. He needs to better lobby his legislators. The Rural Persons With Disabilities program has gotten $2million more put into the PennDOT budget in the midst of this crisis - a 40% increase in that line item - they're an incredibly effective lobby. The Save Our Transit type of organizations in the state have been doing the same thing. But the highway lobby doesn't just rabble-rouse, they put up a heck of a lot of funding toward campaigns. There is a new coalition of contractors, 10,000 Friends of PA, PA Chamber of Commerce, this coalition building is a lot of strange bedfellows, but it's quite possibly going to have an effect. But land use planning is perhaps the final - and hardest - key to this solution. Fixing roads doesn't fix congestion, but fixing roads is what the public wants when you have bad land use planning.

Q - Should we explore folding the Turnpike Commission into PennDOT and so eliminating a double bureaucracy?
- One current option being discussed is should we use the sale or lease of the turnpike system as a revenue generator, through a public / private partnership. But as to folding the Turnpike system into PennDOT, in terms of its function it is much more like a private system, I don't know, you could fold it in and treat it differently, or you could keep it separate. The question remains how do you want to generate revenue to support the system and finance the system so the overall system is not still a burden.

Q - Public / Private Partnerships
- There are several options being considered for the structure of this type of system. The Chinese, for example, are rapidly building their new highway system by bidding it out wholesale to investor companies who will be able to generate the revenues. On the other hand, public / private partnerships are being addressed in conversations to address congestion on the Skuykill Expressway by building an upper level - you would address the congestion on the road through private investment and tolling, but that would not address the impact on every roadway that this increased capacity would effect. Charlotte, NC is experimenting with assigning a prime developer to assigned areas around public transit station facilities through a tax incentive program to incurage private investment.

Q - Regional approach to transportation from the State perspective
- Discussions going on right now around this issue in the Philly region; should we do something around a regional taxing authority that would then act to distribute the funding as a sort of super-authority. Is that better than using the current MTO? Do they implement and direct the funding? If you look at development of new regional transit authorities, some of them work marvelously, work well together and are effective - DART is one of them, in the Dallas area, they've made light rail work in Dallas, which is amazing, public transit is now widely embraces, the Mayor of Dallas is now a huge public transit advocate. But, other authorities have not been successful in making a regional approach work. Some of us have looked at SW PA, where we have several local authorities, I keep wondering if we could at least establish a loose consortium, focusing on first things like an integrated fare system or coordinated route scheduling. If that works, would they then be willing to get some money involved. There's also some very significant problems with wage scales with Port Authority of Allegheny County versus all the surrounding systems; Port Authority is significantly higher.

Q - Why not regional coordination of traffic signals?
- That's just a question of money, dedicating some increase to operations of this. Maybe we should offer some significant incentives to multiple system / municipality programs that would financially reward approaching cooperative operations, transportation and land use planning.

Q - Infrastructure management systems
- PennDOT does in fact provide asset management, but we have a new Deputy Secretary who believes we can do alot more, so that we can focus less on putting out fires. If you make the right repair at the right point, you can really extend the useable life of the system. We're doing pretty well, but there's more to be done; part of that is getting more resources to invest at the right time in the system. A big challenge is also getting the planning partners to invest in maintenance at the right time. Elected officials like to cut ribbons on new bridges, but fixing bridges is not that sexy.

Q - Given how limited the pot of money obviously is, how is there any room in this picture for a $4 billion new highway that will sacrifice these needs?
- The Turnpike was originally set up to pay for construction costs and then for what it costs to maintain it. I'll tell you right now that the state's roads & bridges funding stream "lock box" is increasingly being devoted to the Mon-Fayette. I have a question about that when our system is not up to snuff. My job is to look at the roads and bridges and we're not able to get the job done with what we've got and I'm jealous to see that money go elsewhere when we can't get the job done. There's some talk of public / private partnership to provide funding required for building the rest of the highway, but I seriously question the economic feasibility of that being able to be accomplished.

Q - What can be done about bidding problems that have effected the ability of the bridge construction in Oakland to be done this year?
- Our committee will review the bids, the level of the various bids, the level of the requirements, can we adjust the program to find another several million dollars to take care of the bridge over the long term? We'll deal with that problem one way or another on Monday. Design improvements to make an attractive bridge based on community input were estimated to cost a bit over a million dollars, but in fact came in at over $5million. It's a critical gateway to Oakland, that's why those improvements were considered so important.

Q - Some areas are transit rich (Oakland) some are transit poor; when development occurs in transit poor areas, could there be some sort of development tax on private developers who chose to develop on cheap land at a resulting great expense to the public transit system? How do you balance that on the Federal and State funding streams?
- The most commonly used funding stream for local transit has been sales tax and gas taxes - gas taxes can't be used for that in PA due to the Constitutional requirement on gas taxes. Reality transfer taxes were raised over a year ago, but that idea largely went away. Alex Scuili at Mellon Financial used to be the director of engineering for Pittsburgh and is on the funding commission - he's a big business guy, but he believes that business should chip in and have a role. Rep. David Argo's office - who used to be chair of the House Appropriations committee, he's out in the rural Eastern part of the state - he's just issued a statement that he doesn't want any of his constituent's taxes going to public transit. There's also questions about increasing the local share of transit funding, it is comparatively low in our state, but again the question comes up to the mechanism for that.

Q - North Shore Connector; is it true that we have to take it or never get transit again? What's the impact of North Shore Connector on future federal dollars?
- This is financed with a special discretionary pot of dollars that will not be available again, allowing through a combination of Federal funds, US funding of 80%. It's one of four or five projects in the country that made the qualifications for that funding. Having said that I was lead consultant on the development of that project, if you set up those two stops on the North Shore, there's an opportunity to head out to the airport if someday that makes sense. But I don't this the development of this will have some impact on future projects. But if you say let's not do this project, if you want to get transit out to Oakland, say, by doing down the old CSX rails, or up Fifth Avenue, it's going to be a tremendous amount of lead time.

Q - Tolling Route 80
- We look at it, assuming about 8 toll plazas, with maintenance and equipment, assuming major upgrades, especially on the eastern 1/3 of the system, the analysis showed the cost to be very significant and it would be a number of years until the investment payed back into the system. If we looked at it as a public / private project, that might be an entirely different scenario and one that would change that forumulation.

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