New Castle News

August 19, 2013

Funding for litter removal debated

John Finnerty
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE —  Pennsylvania spends about $15 million a year paying Department of Transportation workers to clean up trash and mow along state-maintained roads.

That kind of spending needs a second-look before taxpayers are asked to absorb the cost of a gas tax increase, state Rep. Stephen Bloom of Cumberland County said.

Bloom is one of the Republicans in the House who broke ranks with the governor, ultimately derailing the transportation plan in June. He also is emerging as one of the most strident conservative voices in the State House.

 Earlier this month, Bloom attracted national attention by announcing an “academic freedom” bill intended to allow students to defend creationism or debate climate change science in class.

He is now circulating a memo seeking support for a bill that would mandate PennDOT to spend its money on road and bridge repairs instead of things like bicycle paths and other non-essential programs.

Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch has warned that because the state Legislature failed to pass a transportation funding plan, PennDOT will add weight restrictions to 1,000 bridges.

So, when Bloom saw a highway advisory from PennDOT on twitter about a “highway beautification” project on I-78, he was flummoxed.

“If finances are truly so bad that PennDOT must now close and weight-restrict thousands of un-fixed crumbling bridges — an action that will trigger dangerous delays in emergency response times for firefighters, police, and other first responders detouring for miles around bridges — then it should be all hands on deck at PennDOT to focus on fixing these bridges before any other projects,” Bloom said.

State Rep. Brad Roae, a Crawford County Republican, agreed.

“Litter cleanup, bike trails, intersection enhancements, (etc.) are nice, but bridges are absolutely essential,” Roae said.

Steve Chizmar, a spokesman for PennDOT, said the I-78 “highway beautification” is litter removal. The highway department used to have a wildflower program, but it was eliminated years ago, he said.

The Transportation Department spends about $8 million a year to have state workers pick up litter along roads, Chizmar said.

That amount would be significantly higher, except there are 7,000 volunteer groups who routinely clean up trash along state roads through the Adopt-a-Highway program. Those volunteer groups remove trash from 16,000 miles of the 40,000 miles of road covered by PennDOT.

But even with that assistance, state workers must regularly pick up animal carcasses, shredded tires and other potential road hazards, Chizmar said.

“They’re not out there just picking up paper cups,” he said. Litter “is the number one complaint we get.”

In addition to the cost of litter removal, PennDOT spends another $7 million mowing grass along and in the median of highways. The agency has tried to cut those costs by mowing less often, Chizmar said.

Bloom said when it comes to belt-tightening, though, the transportation department could do more.

“Government is about prioritizing and stewarding the hard-earned taxpayer dollars we spend, and if that means choosing between keeping bridges open or business-as-usual “nice to have” projects like litter pick-up, then yes, let’s fix the bridges,” Bloom said.

Republican State Rep. Fred Keller of Snyder County said he thinks PennDOT is doing better when it comes to focusing on priorities. Schoch has made public statements that the transportation department is committed to spending the money it has wisely, Keller said.

“I think PennDOT is serious about it. I don’t know what it’s like all over the state,” Keller said. “But in (northcentral Pennsylvania) they only pick up litter when there’s a crew available to do it. And you have to do something about litter. You just can’t let it lie there.”