PEL Study Provides Framework For Rethinking Alternative Transportation Funding Options
Like many states, Pennsylvania faces a funding gap between what it needs to address infrastructure needs and the current revenue sources. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation maintains more than 40,000 miles of highway — comparable to New York, New Jersey and New England combined — and 25,400 bridges. However, funding has not kept pace with the needs to maintain or expand this transportation system. Fuel taxes provide a majority of transportation funding in Pennsylvania, and have been eroded by increasing fuel economy, the rise of electric vehicles and annual inflation. The result is a gap billions of dollars between the state’s transportation needs and its budget, a gap projected to grow if nothing is done.
In response, the state worked with HDR to develop PennDOT Pathways, a program to reimagine transportation funding and create a path to reliable, fair and equitable, and future-focused funding solutions for all Pennsylvanians. The program takes a comprehensive and holistic view of the state’s needs and possible solutions, a complex task.
Developing Possible Solutions with a Planning and Environmental Linkages Study
To support PennDOT Pathways, HDR prepared the cornerstone of the program, a Planning and Environmental Linkages study that identified and evaluated alternative funding options for the near, mid and long term. The PEL combines elements of planning studies and environmental reviews to avoid duplication of efforts. It creates substantial efficiencies in project delivery by providing the background for funding needs, a methodology for environmental evaluations, and a framework for considering mitigations for environmental impacts that can be applied consistently across multiple projects. It also results in close coordination with federal agencies such as the Federal Highway Administration, ensuring adherence to guidelines and streamlining future approvals.
Solutions presented in the PEL include bridge tolling, mileage-based user fees, corridor tolling, managed lanes, congestion pricing, and fees and tax increases. These potential solutions will require additional evaluation, with added studies where needed and public outreach to gather feedback and explain the need.
Public Outreach and Education
HDR’s strategic communications practice has worked with PennDOT on outreach and engagement efforts. HDR also produced materials to support the development and delivery of the Pathways program. That includes communications to support the development of the PEL, which the FHWA concurred with in September 2021. The work included telephone surveys, a website, a social media calendar and posts, monthly e-newsletters, a telephone town hall, an online virtual public meeting and comment management, where all materials were ADA/Section 508 compliant. Equitable outreach, engagement and involvement in all communities also extended into the feedback mechanisms giving folks five ways to provide input on the program, including translation services.
One outreach and engagement strategy involved working with The Eastern Transportation Coalition in creating and evaluating an interactive calculator that allows the public to try their hand at filling the funding gap by making their own choices about how to raise revenue. The tool, which considers a wide range of solutions, highlights the complexity of the state’s transportation funding challenges and the difficult choices needed to solve the problem. A similar MBUF calculator shows Pennsylvania residents how much they might expect to pay in mileage-based user fees or road-user fees if the state pursues that solution.
Opening a Comprehensive Funding Conversation
As Pennsylvania explores funding options, Pathways offers a structure for considering all options and developing a holistic plan. Replacement funding will not be found through one strategy and will likely require combining multiple alternatives. In Pennsylvania, through the Pathways PEL study and program, PennDOT has been able to open a comprehensive funding conversation.
Moving forward, the PEL study is a living document, having identified many near-, mid- and long-term solutions to reliable funding. As solutions are implemented over the coming decade or more, the PEL will be updated or revised to support advancing additional solutions.