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Pennsylvania Needs Infrastructure Investment, But Getting It Could Be Tough

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh is a pretty good place to talk about why reliable infrastructure matters, said Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

“Last week we had a lock and dam failure. Fortunately it was short, but there was a lot of panic going on related to the level of commerce,” he said, before ticking off this fall’s closure of the Liberty Bridge, a main artery for the city, a lack of natural gas distribution infrastructure,  combined sewer overflows into the rivers when it rains. These are all infrastructure problems that affect the state’s ability to compete for business, Yablonsky said.

He was speaking at an infrastructure roundtable organized by the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers.

The discussion was intended to highlight the importance of Pennsylvania's transportation and energy systems, but it began with acknowledging the elephant in the room: President-elect Trump has said he’ll prioritize infrastructure, but it's hard to say for sure how it will play out.

Congressman Mike Doyle (D-Forest Hills) said while he’s encouraged by Trump’s support for a comprehensive infrastructure investment program, he’s concerned by the proposed funding mechanism: by providing tax breaks to private investors.

“What that incentivizes is profitable projects. What the plan doesn’t do is fund projects like municipal water systems, or bridges that don’t charge tolls,” he said.

Richard Stanizzo is business manager for the Pittsburgh Regional Building Trades Council. He said without support from Congress, nothing would happen.

“Let’s get down to the nitty gritty,” he said. “If we’re going to be concerned with the moving forward of the American people, they have to sit down in a room and figure it out.”

In 2014, Pennsylvania led the nation in structurally deficient bridges and combined sewer overflows; it would take an estimated $28 billion just to get our water systems up to snuff. Doyle said the piecemeal infrastructure funding provided by the federal government is really just robbing Peter to pay Paul. And they’ve run out of Peters.

“Obviously, we’re the large funder of projects nationwide, and we need predictability and we need a reliable funding source,” he said.

Ultimately, members of Congress will have to convince their constituents that spending money to fix roads and bridges is good for the country’s future, Doyle said.

“When people can connect the dots between what the tax is being levied, and what it’s for, and how it’s going to be spent, I think it’s easier to build support for that.”

Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association president David Taylor is hopeful. He says Trump’s support for domestic energy bodes well for the state: building out energy infrastructure such as pipelines will seed other infrastructure projects such as rail and roads, and will spur companion manufacturing investments, Taylor said. He pointed to the decision of Shell Chemical Appalachia to build an ethane cracker plant in the region.

“This is going to be the beginning of decades of investment and growth and jobs in western Pennsylvania, but it’s only going to come to pass if we have the kind of infrastructure that makes it possible to get it to market,” he said. “This really is the golden hour. If we falter now, we’re going to miss out on what should really be ours: the Pennsylvania deployment of this Pennsylvania resource.”

He’s concerned the state will founder if decisive action isn’t taken. “We’re already losing out,” he said, noting that chemical corporation Braskem America, Inc. located its new, $500 million polypropylene facility in Texas instead of Philadelphia, largely because the region couldn’t offer the same quick access to feedstock.