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State, industries say money from federal infrastructure deal will help, but it only goes so far

Workers pave Fisk Street in Lawrenceville in 2021.
Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA
Workers pave Fisk Street in Lawrenceville in 2021.

Under the deal reached by federal lawmakers, Pennsylvania is slated to get billions of dollars for infrastructure projects over the next five years.

All told, according to Gov. Tom Wolf’s office, there’s at least roughly $18 billion in new and recurring funding for the Keystone State tucked into the bill signed by President Joe Biden last month. Both state leaders and industry experts who spoke to WITF’s Smart Talk on Tuesday said they are pleased the deal was reached.

“This sends out a signal that government can still work,” Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry CEO Gene Barr said. “It happened. We pulled it together. It’s paid for…it’s all very much a positive.”

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell pointed to the $1.4 billion the state will get over the next five years to improve drinking water and water treatment systems. That will include paying for the removal of lead pipes that are still serving households in places like Pittsburgh and York.

“Getting an infusion of cash there is critical,” McDonnell said.

But they also said the money won’t be as effective as they had hoped, since it will need to be spread out among thousands of projects that are waiting for funding.

“Once you start to slice it out into all the different types of infrastructure that we have throughout the commonwealth, it doesn’t result in as much money as what you would think,” said Cathy Farrell of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

For instance, $1.6 billion is set aside to repair or replace some of the more than 3,300 bridges that engineers consider in bad shape. That’s part of the $4 billion in new money the state will receive for roadway and bridge projects overall.

But Pa. Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary for Planning Larry Shifflet said that new bridge money is not enough to fully fund nine interstate bridge projects the agency has been eyeing. That means the agency will still have to consider tolling drivers at least $1 to $2 each to pay for those fixes.

“Yes, the interstate system would get a share or a portion of that $1.6 billion, but not the full $1.6 billion,” Shiflitt said.

The agency said earlier this year that it spends $6.9 billion per year on bridge projects, but estimates it needs $15 billion to properly keep them up. Overall, PennDOT said it needs to close an annual funding gap of more than $9 billion to keep highways and bridges in working order.

On top of all that, each of the thousands of bridge projects that state and local authorities could fund take “years,” Shiflitt said. “You have to get through the engineering part of it, you have to get through the permitting part of it, and then the actual construction part of it.”

A similar backlog has built up in other infrastructure areas.

DEP Secretary McDonnell said the agency will be getting $400 million to cap orphaned gas wells over the next five years. Those wells are known to leak climate warming methane, and McDonnell says the state has spent just shy of $40 million over the last few decades to plug them.

But as StateImpact Pennsylvania reports, there are more than 8,800 documented wells that have been abandoned or gone unplugged in Western Pa. alone, while potentially hundreds of thousands of others are unaccounted for.

“In the context of [those] wells, that’s not a lot of money, but in the context of where we’ve been with well plugging across the state, this is really game-changing money,” McDonnell said.

The new infrastructure money will have to be spent by governments over the next five years, which means they may have to find more money to keep some projects going after that.

At the same time, the state has access to another pool of new federal cash that the U.S. Treasury said can be partly used for infrastructure projects: the $5 billion in American Rescue Plan money it has tucked away in savings.

That pool must be used by 2024, and state lawmakers already spent some of the original $7.3 billion package in the latest state budget.