Pennsylvania will match up to $2 million to fix bridges if Luzerne County imposes a new $5 vehicle registration fee — but only once, a state transportation official told county council this week.
The county administration’s initial impression that the bonus would be available each year was a key reason it revived the push to enact the controversial fee.
Still, county Manager C. David Pedri said Wednesday he supports the fee because the windfall will help put a dent in bridge repairs, even if it is only received once.
Pedri said he followed up with PennDOT after Tuesday’s council briefing and verified the state has a goal of continuing the match annually but cannot commit beyond one year.
Council would have the right to reconsider the vehicle fee annually and could opt to repeal it if the match ends, he said.
The $5 fee on 281,000 vehicles would yield an estimated $1.4 million annually to repair the county’s 304 bridges and approximately 128 miles of county roads. Around 60 percent of county bridges — 182 of them — have cracks, erosion or other evidence of deterioration that must be repaired to meet current standards, officials have said.
James D. Ritzman, PennDOT’s deputy secretary for planning, told council Tuesday the match stemmed largely from a state performance report recommending more investment in local bridges.
While the state has reduced its structurally deficient bridges from 6,000 to 3,100 in a decade, the number of deficient local bridges over 20 feet increased from 2,048 to 2,100 during that period statewide, Ritzman said.
The state tracks spans over 20 feet because that’s the length to qualify for federal and state bridge funding, officials have said.
About 36 percent of Luzerne County bridges over 20 feet are structurally deficient, Ritzman said. Counties with that many bridges in “poor condition” should have a plan to address them, he said.
The match, which will be federally funded, was limited to counties with the vehicle fee as a way to recognize them for making the “hard decision” to raise more local revenue to target infrastructure problems, he said.
Council members Harry Haas and Stephen A. Urban told Ritzman they cannot justify a vehicle fee, particularly after Act 89 promised to address highway and bridge repairs through gasoline tax increases that have boosted the state’s tax on gas to 58 cents per gallon.
Urban pointed out the county has not received an increase in its $1.2 million annual state liquid fuel allocation in recent years.
The state distributes approximately $600 million to local governments through liquid fuel funding and around $1 billion more annually via the state’s Transportation Improvement Plan, Ritzman said.
Liquid fuel allocations for municipalities did rise 60 percent because of Act 89, Ritzman replied, reminding council members his agency does not draft legislation.
State highway and bridge construction spending also have increased due to the gasoline tax increase, he said, promising to prepare a synopsis for the county on gas tax spending.
Councilwoman Sheila Saidman said the match may benefit county bridges but appears to be a way for the state to improve its unfavorable review on addressing local bridges.
Ritzman said her observation is accurate, but he also emphasized the state is not ultimately obligated to fix county bridges.
Inadequate state funding
Funding is not meeting the demand for infrastructure repairs and enhancements at the state level, Ritzman said.
As an example, he pointed to his Interstate 81 drive to the meeting from Harrisburg, saying it “still isn’t real pleasant.”
The state has no plans to widen the interstate, even though long-range forecasts project each spot with 10 trucks today will have 17 in 2040, he said.
“We’re getting a lot done. We’re not getting near done what needs to be, so it’s always about making choices,” Ritzman said.
Councilwoman Jane Walsh Waitkus asked why only 21 of the state’s 67 counties have imposed the fee.
Political pushback is a likely reason, said Ritzman. Some counties also have few bridges, while Luzerne County is among the top ten with the most, he said.
Legislators provided the vehicle fee as an option in 2013 for counties to generate revenue from a source other than real estate taxes, according to Ritzman.
The state does not charge an administrative fee to collect and forward the vehicle fee revenue to counties twice a year, he stressed. Based on past analysis, approximately 2 to 3 percent of county vehicles will be exempt from the fee under the legislation, he said.