PennDOT cash shortage could stall Mount Rose Avenue/I-83 project

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Construction continues at the Mount Rose Avenue, Interstate 83 junction after Governor Wolf allowed certain road project to resume work following the COVID-19 shutdown. Saturday, April 25, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

The Mount Rose Avenue interchange project on Interstate 83 is one of 18 projects in York County that could grind to a halt Tuesday if the state Department of Transportation is unable to acquire a bond to make up for revenue shortfalls. 

The looming deadline for funding comes after Gov. Tom Wolf on Nov. 23 signed into law an $11 billion spending package that will fund the state through June 2021. But PennDOT officials say they haven't received enough funds to recoup losses from the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of federal aid.

As a result, PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian said, the department is in a "state of emergency" and needs to procure a $600 million bond to continue projects throughout the state.

"In addition to the impact of long-declining gas tax revenues and an ongoing lack of meaningful federal investment, PennDOT faces irrevocable losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic," Gramian said during a bicameral Transportation Committee hearing on Nov. 23.

More:Mount Rose project completion date pushed back to 2021

More:Work at I-83 Shrewsbury project will close lanes

PennDOT is seeking emergency legislative approval to borrow the money as it prepares to potentially suspend hundreds of projects throughout the state.

Legislative Republicans, however, haven't budged and are alleging agency officials didn't give them enough notice of the desired bond, creating a road-project budget crisis that could have been avoided.

State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, said in a Nov. 23 tweet that the situation was "very troubling."

"Without (the bond), they have threatened to pause major projects, including the Exit 4 and Exit 18 projects along I-83," she tweeted. "I found out about this issue last week…the Administration has known since August/September!!"

The Mount Rose Avenue project, which is at risk, has been a headache for York County residents, and the lawmakers who represent them, for years.

Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said Republicans in the Legislature are at fault for the lack of funding to combat the anticipated $500 million to $600 million in losses due to a steep decrease in travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. PennDOT is funded mainly though gasoline taxes and driver and vehicle fees.

"The initial fiscal code included language to give PennDOT bonding authority to address funding. However, the language on the bonding authority was stripped out of the initial Fiscal Code draft by House Republican leadership during the budget approval process," she said.

During the Nov. 23 hearing, Republicans pinned the blame on PennDOT for not informing lawmakers it would need a bond to cover shortfalls until the last minute. 

"Draft language for an authorization for $600 million worth of bonds was not created until last Tuesday, which is extremely late in the process and has led us to this very difficult situation," said House Transportation Committee chair Tim Hennessey, R-Chester County.

Gramian, on the other hand, said she brought up the anticipated budget shortfall "to sound the alarm" in May, when initial projections forecast losses between $800 million and $900 million.

Now, PennDOT's only option, she argued, is for emergency legislative approval to borrow the $600 million.

Republicans have not yet indicated whether they'd be willing to approve the emergency bond measure before Tuesday. 

The $58.3 million Mount Rose project was initially slated to be completed by Maryland-based contractor Cherry Hill Construction in 2018.

However, the completion date has been pushed back twice. Most recently, in August, PennDOT announced the project's new completion date would be April of next year.

Meanwhile, Cherry Hill and PennDOT remain in a legal battle over who is to blame for the delays. The state Board of Claims has not yet ruled on the matter.

Mount Rose is not the only project in York County that would be suspended if adequate funding is not acquired.

The Shewsbury Exit 4 diverging diamond interchange project, for example, would also be suspended.

The $29.8 million project began early last year to build a new interchange at the exit. It was initially expected to be completed by next spring.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.