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Pennsylvania and N.J. are hoping for billions from Biden for roads, bridges, new transit lines

SEPTA needs federal money to advance its $2 billion extension of rail service to fast-growing King of Prussia and a $1.8 billion modernization of Philadelphia’s trolleys.

Traffic moves on the highway below in 2018, during construction on the  NJ Turnpike.
Traffic moves on the highway below in 2018, during construction on the NJ Turnpike.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

As President Joe Biden campaigned for his $2.25 trillion infrastructure spending plan at the other end of Pennsylvania on Wednesday, transportation officials on both sides of the Delaware River were coveting a share for their long lists of planned capital improvements and repairs.

SEPTA alone needs federal money to advance its $2 billion extension of rail service to fast-growing King of Prussia and an $1.8 billion modernization of Philadelphia’s trolleys, general manager Leslie S. Richards said.

The trolleys are important links for residents of West Philadelphia, she said. The bulk of the fleet, acquired during the Reagan era, is a decade past its expected 30-year life span.

”The timing could not be better,” Richards said. “These investments are going to be vital to the recovery of cities that rely on mass transit.”

Richards, Pennsylvania’s former secretary of transportation, also praised the Biden administration for setting overdue goals of addressing climate change and making transit more accessible to disadvantaged communities.

» READ MORE: Biden unveils his multitrillion-dollar infrastructure plan in Pittsburgh

Federal aid is needed for roadways and bridges as well, including the eight-year, ongoing $900 million project to connect I-295, I-76, and Route 42 in Camden County. Among other goals listed by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission: work on the Schuylkill Expressway and the Blue Route to ease congestion with real-time information for drivers and an extra lane at peak times. The DVRPC also prioritized an 18-mile light rail line between Camden and Glassboro in South Jersey, its cost north of $1.5 billion.

And a long list of needed repairs.

“We only have the ability to spend about half the money we need to modernize and repair the transportation infrastructure we already have,” said Barry Seymour, executive director of the DVRPC.

Overall, Biden’s plan would pour $620 billion into transportation infrastructure, the single largest spending category in the proposal.

That includes $115 billion to upgrade 20,000 miles of roadways and repair about 10,000 crumbling bridges; $85 billion for repairs and improvements to public transit systems; and $174 billion to incentivize building 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles by 2030 and breaks for consumers to buy them, as well as replacing 50,000 diesel-burning transit vehicles and up to 20% of school buses.

Details were sparse, though a state-by-state breakdown of spending is expected soon.

» READ MORE: SEPTA doubles down on commitment to $2B King of Prussia Rail project

SEPTA wants to upgrade more stations to provide access for people with mobility issues, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act; redesign the bus system to make routes clearer and service more frequent, and buy new railcars for the Market-Frankford Line.

Pennsylvania ranks second in the nation with 3,353 structurally deficient bridges needing monitoring and repair, according to federal data compiled by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

One specific project will definitely be included in the spending plan sent to Congress, according to an administration official: the massive Gateway Program to improve Northeast Corridor rail connections between New Jersey and New York. The project would build a new two-track tunnel under the Hudson River and repair the existing tunnel, which is 100 years old and was damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

When completed, it would help the economy in the corridor, including Philadelphia’s, as would a separate $80 million Biden has asked Congress to invest in Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor operations. Amtrak wants to fix bridges, stations, and tunnels to speed trips.

“It would be a game-changer for the region to have high-speed rail in the corridor,” Seymour said.

The Trump administration declined to support the Gateway project. Earlier, then-Gov. Christopher J. Christie, a Republican, said he would not commit to the state paying a share of the cost because it would be too expensive. The tunnels were projected to cost $13.5 billion in 2011; the delay certainly will increase the sticker price.

At this point, the money in Biden’s plan is pretty much theoretical, though it provides a road map of his priorities. Now Congress will have its say, and Republicans and some moderate Democrats are already expressing concern about the cost, on top of the pandemic-relief spending.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg last week said he wants to work more closely with local governments, instead of passing all infrastructure money through state governments.

“State and local, they say, almost as if it’s the same thing,” Buttigieg told the National Association of Counties last week. “Any of us who have worked in local government know it doesn’t quite work that way. Local leaders partner with the states that they’re in. But states don’t always see things from that critically important local perspective.”