What went down in Pennsylvania Legislature this year for transportation?

The following post is a guest blog from Breen Masciotra, the regional outreach manager for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, working on its GoBurgh transit initiative in support of transit funding and transit oriented development. While GoBurgh convened the transit advocacy coalition, its success is attributed to all coalition members.

Pennsylvania’s transportation funding was effectively updated, most recently, in 1997. Ten years later, the state legislature took up the issue and passed Act 44 of 2007, which was intended to meet transportation funding needs. However, Act 44 depended on tolling Interstate 80, the application for which the federal government denied. Act 44 provided useful local tools but failed to meet the statewide needs.

After living for several years in the wake of the I-80 proposal failure, the new governor convened a commission to examine the issue. The resulting report, released in August 2011, indicated that the state was facing a $3.5B annual shortfall and recommended $2.5B in sources and uses for new revenue. In May of 2013, a bill following the commission’s recommendations was introduced in the PA Senate and passed with overwhelming support a month later.

The bill then became bogged down in partisan debate in the House. It was voted out of the Transportation Committee with an amendment that nearly halved the funding levels. There was significant debate and little appetite to move that bill through the process. At that time, the bill was also tied to a legislative effort to privatize Pennsylvania’s state-owned liquor stores, which further mired it in partisan complications. No action was taken before the legislature departed for a summer break.

After returning to session in the fall, and a few false starts, House leadership began talks toward a compromise bill. Talks continued for weeks, sorting out funding sources and amount to which both parties were amenable, with the one sticking point being a change to the prevailing wage cap for transportation construction projects. Ultimately, each party offered up an amendment with the same compromise funding language – the Republican version offering changes to prevailing wage, the Democratic version not.

On Monday, November 18, 2013, the legislature voted on the Republican amendment twice, with it failing both times. The House brought the same, failed amendment to the floor again on Tuesday with greater success: it passed 104-95. The bill went before the Senate on Wednesday, passing 43-7, and returned to the House for a successful concurrence vote on Thursday. The bill was presented to the Governor for signature on Friday, November 22, 2013.

The success of the transportation funding bill of 2013 is due, in significant part, to the work of transit advocates in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The notable capacity in this area is due to a history of fighting for transit service and funding that is longer than other parts of the state.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County began to experience budget shortfalls in 2003. It implemented 15% cuts in service in 2003, 2007, and 2011. In all cases, these events mobilized transit users and other stakeholders to speak out for transit. Some new organizations formed and others added transit to their existing policy agenda.

By 2012, Port Authority was facing a 35% cut in service. Advocates worked together to get the message to the Governor that allowing that cut to proceed would be devastating to not only riders across the county but also drivers and employers across the region. On August 21, 2012, state, county, transit agency and transit union leadership reached an agreement with contributions from each party to close the $64M budget gap for four years.

The 2012 agreement was a temporary fix and, as other agencies across the state as well as roads and bridges, began to suffer due to lack of investment, it was clear that a state-wide and sustainable solution was needed to protect Pennsylvania’s residents and its economy.

In early 2013, advocates in the Pittsburgh area began to talk about a coordinated effort. They eventually formed a broad-based coalition of about a dozen organizations, which carried out a series of coordinated advocacy activities in the months of April, May, and June. The coalition reconvene in August, planning for the fall legislative session and carrying out further coordinated activities, including legislative visits, a rally, and phone banks. With the help of a local representative, the coalition targeted 12 legislators leaning “no” on a compromise bill, the results of which were 8 voting for and 4 against.

While there was the largely industry driven Keystone Transportation Funding Coalition providing a state-wide table in support of transportation funding, there was no real, structured transit advocacy effort outside of Southwestern Pennsylvania. That transit advocacy coalition was an organized and sustained effort that also supported KTFC and other state-wide pushes.

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