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Pa. roadwork in slow-down zone

Progress on highways and bridges has been sluggish, and now a key legislator will leave.

HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania primary last week took down one of the state's foremost advocates for highway and bridge repairs: Richard Geist, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Geist, a 34-year House veteran from Altoona who has chaired the committee since 1994, lost the Republican nod in his district Tuesday in a narrow upset by a Penn State-Altoona professor running his first campaign. He will leave office in January.

His loss was the talk of business leaders, lobbyists, and legislators who for years have pressed - unsuccessfully - for a substantial increase in funding to repair the deteriorating state transportation system.

Geist "has been an incredible champion," said David Patti, president and chief executive of the Pennsylvania Business Council. "He has provided leadership, he has been outspoken - not afraid to urge the Corbett administration to move farther and faster."

"Rick has been a stalwart on this issue for a generation," said Robert Latham, director of Associated Pennsylvania Constructors, which speaks for 430 companies that employ 50,000 to 75,000 workers in highway and bridge construction.

Still, progress has been slow, the time for action to be taken in 2012 is running out, and Gov. Corbett and lawmakers - both Democrats and Republicans - are pointing fingers about who's to blame for the problem.

Statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation are sobering.

Pennsylvania will spend $5.6 billion, including federal funds, on highways, bridges, and mass transit in the fiscal year ending June 30, according to PennDot.

Yet more than 4,800 of the 25,000 state bridges - about one in five - are considered structurally deficient, including 625 that have posted weight limits, and 56 spans have been closed as unsafe.

Of the 40,000 miles of state-maintained highways, more than 9,000 miles need repaving or more substantial work, PennDot says.

The GOP governor said in his February budget speech that the transportation issue is "too large" to be tackled as part of the annual state budget negotiations that preoccupy lawmakers during May and June. He promised to work with lawmakers, but has yet to take positions on the $2.5 billion grab bag of higher taxes, fees, and other steps his own special advisory panel recommended last summer.

At the same time, legislators are likely to be reluctant to support higher taxes in a year in which most of them are seeking reelection.

"It's easy for legislators to stand up and hold a news conference about this. It's another thing for them to deliver votes," Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said.

"The governor will be engaged . . . but he needs to have legislative partners."

Geist said the governor needs to lead the way to a consensus.

"The only guy who can bring us all together in one room with an agreed-to package is the chief executive office of the state," he said. "The General Assembly's flag is not flying over PennDot. His is."

While consumers may dislike the prospect of paying higher taxes and fees, business advocates say that consumers are already paying extra when they buy goods delivered by trucks that are forced to take long detours because of roadwork or bridges that can no longer safely carry their weight.

"Really, the question is whether the governor and the leaders will get together and say, 'Now is the time,' " Latham said. "I just think it's inertia at this point."

One potential bright spot for transportation funding advocates is a House-passed bill to authorize partnerships between the public and private sectors on transportation projects.

Under the bill, which is pending in the Senate and supported by Corbett, public entities would retain ownership while private concerns would build, operate, or provide funding for the work. Supporters say it would help create jobs, although critics say it would erode the authority of elected officials and do little to relieve the funding crunch in the short term.

It's "a step in the right direction, but that's not going to do anything for years," said Jim Runk, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association.

Patti, of the Harrisburg-based business council, predicted that the public-private partnership bill may be among several minor measures that are passed this year, but was doubtful that there would be any breakthrough.

"I think we'll tinker around the edges and set things up for next year," he said. "All progress is good."