WILKES-BARRE When state lawmakers passed a transportation funding bill in November, they promised it would raise billions to fix crumbling bridges and decaying roads.
Most drivers they thought the extra money paid at the pump because of the transportation bill would help repair a transportation system at the breaking point.
“To fix highways and stuff like that,” said Trissta Adams of Nanticoke.
“To fix the potholes,” is how Walt Zimmerman of Dallas understood the deal.
“Has to be the bridges I guess,” added John Thayer of Wilkes-Barre.
4200 bridges in Pennsylvania are called “structurally deficient.” meaning the bridges need repair or are too narrow for today’s larger vehicles.
Many in our area have been closed to traffic, others have low weight restrictions keeping trucks from crossing.
And while bridges decay. Some interstate highways and state roads seem to develop potholes faster than workers can repair them.
The bill is supposed to provide $7-8 billion over the next five years for repairs.
“99% of the projects we`re doing are fixing. Fixing roads, and bridges,” says Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick.
But state officials confirmed the transportation bill also contains money for new highway projects and expansions, not just the fix ups.
In November, Penndot secretary Barry Schoch announced money in the bill will kick-start the Central Susquehanna Valley Thruway connecting Northumberland, Union, and Snyder counties.
“Unless something drastic happens to overall funding, there`s no reason this project won`t continue,” Schoch told business leaders before Thanksgiving.
Meantime a state lawmaker announced that road crews will widen Interstate 80 in Monroe County to six lanes from Stroudsburg to the New Jersey border.
The combined cost of these two new projects in our area is $750,000,000.
Penndot says the federal government will pay for up to 80%, and that the state`s costs will be spread out over more than a decade.
“It’s not a case where those projects are taking away from the fix it first approach,” says Kirkpatrick.
But a leading Pennsylvania government watchdog is suspicious.
“What good is it to have an expanded highway, if the bridges leading to and from it, are broken?” asks Eric Epstein of rockthecapital.org.
Epstein says we shouldn`t be surprised the extra money from the bill is also being used to expand road projects.
“And this is classic Harrisburg where those with the power and the money get served first. In fact, what we`re seeing now is an expansion before we even repair what`s broken,” says Epstein.
Penndot’s Kirkpatrick says any criticism is premature.
He says the agency will award two billion dollars in contracts this year.
“There`s not going to be a scale back of the plans to fix the bridges and start fixing the roads,” said the Penndot spokesman.