By Catherine L. Rossi

After attending a state transportation commission hearing in Philadelphia last week, I walked away wondering how Pennsylvania is possibly going to prioritize and pay for all the transportation projects on its wish lists.

Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties named their needs for bridges, highways, rails and roads. Transportation woes are great and growing.

The defining moment - the one that crystallized collective thought - came when Matthew Edmond, a senior Montgomery County planning official, asked, "Where is funding going to come from to fix the thousands of local bridges owned by municipalities and counties?"

Good question. Not many answers.

Pennsylvania is home to the largest number of structurally deficient bridges in the nation, nearly 6,000 statewide. Three-quarters of our bridges needing repair are locally owned. Montgomery County, for instance, says it needs $20 million to replace the Route 422 bridge over the Schuylkill - and that doesn't include design costs.

Thousands of motorists crossed Minnesota's Interstate 35W bridge every day without thinking twice. Now, we had better think twice.

Think twice about ways of reassuring that our bridges are safe. Think twice about preventing something like that from happening again, in our own state. And, think twice about the money we spend - or don't spend - on our highways and bridges.

Simply put: Well-engineered, well-constructed and well-maintained bridges don't simply fall down. We need to take care of them.

And, it costs money to do so. This is where the rubber literally meets the road.

We have heard the haggling in Harrisburg. Traffic on Pennsylvania's roads is expanding faster than the state's population. The number of drivers, vehicles, and miles driven on local roads and bridges has soared - as has the cost of paving roads, acquiring land and building bridges. Pennsylvania's roads are ideal throughways for the trucking industry. That's a great economic benefit, but heavier trucks are exponentially more damaging to roads.

We don't have to be structural engineers to understand the consequences of inadequately funding our highways and bridges. It has become too easy - for political and personal reasons - to grumble over proposed hikes in tolls, tickets and taxes. Somebody has to pay for our roads and bridges, and we all know who that "somebody" will be!

Nevertheless, our federal lawmakers and policymakers have a responsibility to stop earmarking highway and bridge money for "pork" and unrelated projects such as recreational bike paths, museums and historic lighthouses.

Pennsylvania also has a responsibility to resist the temptation to divert highway and bridge money to fund mass transit deficits and publicly account for transportation spending. The commonwealth already has the 10th-highest gas tax rate in the country. Although its state system is large, there are several larger states with much lower tax rates. As tax-paying motorists, we should require fiscal accountability of spending for our roads and bridges.

The AAA, which I represent, is not fond of supporting more motorist taxes and fees, but we know we need to shore up our infrastructure. AAA will support reasonable increases in fees and taxes but only if the money is used wisely and exclusively for needed highway and bridge projects.

We can't afford to take transportation for granted. As a motorist organization, it is AAA's hope that the stark reality of the bridge collapse in the Twin Cities can bridge political differences and public perceptions over transportation funding.