Auditor: Diversion of PennDOT funds delaying repairs to bridges, highways

Stacy Wescoe//April 25, 2019

Auditor: Diversion of PennDOT funds delaying repairs to bridges, highways

Stacy Wescoe//April 25, 2019

The diversion is slowing repairs to the more than 2,800 structurally deficient bridges around the state, according to the auditor general, Eugene DePasquale, who based his findings on an audit of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

In his report, DePasquale said the state legislature, during its budget process, has diverted more than $4.25 billion from the Motor License Fund to the Pennsylvania State Police since the 2012-13 fiscal year.

The Motor License Fund is replenished by a 57.6 cent tax added to each gallon of gas sold in Pennsylvania. Under the state constitution, the money is supposed to be used solely for the construction, reconstruction, maintenance and repair of and safety on public highways and bridges, DePasquale said.

The General Assembly acted to phase in a cap on the amount of money going to state police from the Motor License Fund, but in the 2017-18 fiscal year state police still received $789.58 million from the fund.

DePasquale said that money was needed for highway and bridge repairs.

“The nearly $800 million that came out of the fund in one year could have helped PennDOT make a significant dent in the list of urgent needs across Pennsylvania,” he added. “While state police certainly deserve to be adequately funded, I don’t think anyone is thrilled about seeing gas tax revenues being siphoned off for purposes other than improving our roads and bridges.”

State Rep. Bob Freeman (D-Northampton) said the legislature justified taking money from the highway funding to pay for state police because state police are the law enforcement body that patrols those state roads.

“So it is relevant,” he said.

The problem, he said, is the amount of funding needed by the state police. He said as more municipalities rely on state police as for main police coverage it increases the agency’s expenses.

“That is a concern,” Freeman said. “When you have a rather large community with the resources, they should be contributing something towards the cost.”

He said if municipalities would contribute more towards state police coverage, the other money could go toward bridge and highway repair instead.

In his release, DePasquale speculated on what PennDOT projects could be further along if they had received the funds that had been diverted to state police.

He said with the additional funding PennDOT could speed up rehabilitation of 2.6 miles of Route 611 in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Monroe County, that has been identified as a “missing link” connector for the Liberty Trail.

He noted that preliminary engineering work on the $30 million project is not set to begin until 2024.

In the Harrisburg area, he said, work on the Market Street Bridge is in a holding pattern while PennDOT studies how best to address it and other nearby bridges that cross the Susquehanna River.

The availability of additional funding could accelerate that needed work on the bridge, whose western span has been rated as structurally deficient.

Funding distribution

In his report, DePasquale also questioned how money from the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Fund was being awarded by the governor.

During the audit period, between Jan. 1, 2014, and June 30, 2017, PennDOT indicated the governor approved TIIF monies for 27 projects totaling almost $65.2 million.

The TIIF funds are awarded at the governor’s discretion for transportation projects associated with economic-development opportunities.

“While these may have been very worthwhile projects, my audit team was unable to find detailed documentation explaining how and why they were selected to receive funding,” DePasquale said. “I recommend that this program be revised to work like a competitive grant program and steps should be taken to ensure all regions of the state have an equal chance to receive funds.”