Officials: Transportation will suffer with bill's defeat

Posted: November 21, 2013

Commuter rail service is likely to be cut next year, and Pennsylvania's highways and bridges will continue to deteriorate, transportation officials said Tuesday, following the narrow legislative defeat of a major transportation funding increase.

Most lawmakers from southeastern Pennsylvania supported the funding measure, but eight area Democrats and five Republicans voted against it. And a key supporter, Rep. Louise Bishop (D., Phila.), was out sick, the only legislator not voting on the measure, which was defeated 103-98 Monday night.

Supporters of the bill, which would have increased gas taxes and motorists' fees to provide about $2.4 billion in additional funding, said negotiations were continuing Tuesday to try to revive the bill, which was one of Gov. Corbett's key legislative priorities.

Republican opponents cited the increased taxes and fees as a prime reason for their "no" votes, while Democratic opponents said they objected to a provision that would have increased the prevailing-wage exemption on government construction projects, which some labor unions opposed.

"We're extremely disappointed," said SEPTA general manager Joseph Casey from Harrisburg, where he continued to lobby for reconsideration. "The future is not bright . . . I do not even want to think about the future."

SEPTA officials have outlined a doomsday plan for years of service cutbacks, especially on commuter rail routes, if more money is not provided to repair the transit network.

The first victim is set to be the Cynwyd Line, SEPTA's least-used commuter rail route. Officials say they expect to end service on the route in 2014.

In 2015, the plan calls for the elimination of the heavily traveled Media-Elwyn line, followed by the Chestnut Hill West line in 2018, and the West Trenton, Airport, Warminster, Marcus Hook-Wilmington, Fox Chase, and Chestnut Hill East lines in 2023.

In addition, SEPTA says it would truncate its busiest rail line, the Paoli-Thorndale line, at Malvern in 2023, and end service to Doylestown on the Lansdale-Doylestown line in 2018.

Also, the plan calls for retiring - but not replacing - 284 rail cars, leaving the agency with just its 120 Silverliner V cars by 2023.

"That's our best estimate," said Casey on Tuesday, although he said, "we'll keep the lines running as long as it's safe to operate."

On the region's highways and bridges, "obviously, some major projects aren't going to get done," said Gene Blaum, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

More bridges will be posted with weight limits, and others will be closed to traffic, if repairs are unaffordable, PennDot officials have said.

In September, PennDot began to post limits on heavy vehicles on about 130 bridges in the five-county Philadelphia region and 1,000 bridges statewide.

In Monday's vote in Harrisburg, 50 of the five-county region's 64 House members voted for the transportation-funding plan, 13 voted against it, and Bishop was absent.

Twenty-eight Democrats from Southeastern Pennsylvania voted for it, while eight voted against it. Among area Republicans, 22 supported the measure, while five opposed it.

Rep. Stephen Barrar, R., Delaware/Chester, said the proposed 28-cent-a-gallon increase in the wholesale gas tax, spread over five years, was too much for his constituents to bear.

"Government can always make an argument to spend more money," Barrar said. "This would amount to a $400 to $500 a year increase to the average family ... and I could not find any support in my district for a gas tax increase of this magnitude."

Rep. John Lawrence, R., Chester, also cited the gas tax increase for opposing the measure.

Lawrence said "structurally deficient bridges are a real issue, and we have to focus on that," but he said the price tag should be lower.

Transit advocate Andy Sharpe said the vote "may well have put the steel wheels in motion on SEPTA's doomsday budget."

Casey said he and other SEPTA officials would stay in Harrisburg Tuesday to try to persuade some of the region's "no" votes to reconsider.

"The Southeast delivered . . . but it wasn't 100 percent, so we've got to talk to those people who voted no," he said.

The opponents were:

Reps. Stephen Barrar, R., Chester/Delaware; Matthew Bradford, D., Montgomery; Mary Jo Daley, D., Montgomery; Tina Davis, D., Bucks; Madeleine Dean, D., Montgomery; Gene DiGirolamo, R., Bucks; Warren Kampf, R., Chester/Montgomery; John Lawrence, R., Chester; Stephen McCarter, D., Montgomery/Phila.; Mark Painter, D., Montgomery; John Sabatina, D., Phila.; Steven Santarsiero, D., Bucks, and Dan Truitt, R., Chester.

pnussbaum@phillynews.com

215-854-4587

@nussbaumpaul

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