Rally in Phila. for new federal transit funding

A crowd gathered at the National Transportation Infrastructure Day rally held at Dilworth Park, center city, Philadelphia on April 9, 2015. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer )

Congress will pass a bill to pump billions of dollars into transportation improvements this year, federal legislators promised Thursday at a Center City rally.

"It's now the federal government's turn to make sure we step up," said Rep. Bill Shuster (R., Pa.), chair of the House transportation and infrastructure committee.

Congress is reviewing an Obama administration proposal to raise $478 billion through six years for transit needs, from highways and trains to ports and bridges. The Grow America Act, if passed, would be the first long-term transportation funding bill since 2005.

"The American infrastructure is crumbling, and as a result, we're endangering our public safety," former Gov. Ed Rendell said at the rally, which drew several hundred people to a soggy Dilworth Park.

The rally was one of 140 Stand Up for Transportation events held Thursday across the country, organizers said. The nation's Highway Trust Fund is set to run out of money this summer. If Congress does not pass a funding bill, transportation projects nationwide could stall.

Sixty-five percent of America's roads are rated as in less than good repair, which costs Pennsylvania drivers nearly $3 billion a year in vehicle repair and costs, said Therese McMillan, acting head of the Federal Transit Administration.

More than 42 percent of Pennsylvania's bridges need repair, she said. The Philadelphia region, like many on the East Coast, needs federal funding to supplement the state and local money for maintaining and improving infrastructure.

"Large urban areas in older cities have the oldest infrastructure," McMillan said. "They also have a high ridership."

A lack of funding would be a blow for the more than $460 million in improvements and expansion underway on I-95 near Cottman and Girard Avenues, officials said.

"If the feds don't keep that spigot open," said Barry Seymour of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, "that project comes to a halt."

There are plans to add parking, improve platforms, and increase accessibility at SEPTA stations in Chester County, the region's fastest-growing county, that would be hindered without a federal commitment, said Jonathan Ewald of the nonprofit Transportation Management Association of Chester County.

"All those things help add speed to the train line," Ewald said.

In Montgomery County, second only to Philadelphia as a regional job creator, federal money is a key component in planning.

"If we don't have adequate federal funds in the next few years here, we will have problems with the growth that is occurring right now," said Josh Shapiro, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners.

The most recent transportation bill passed in 2012 and expired in 2014. Congress has enacted patches ever since. Another short-term patch is possible this year. But without a six-year funding commitment, officials said, transportation agencies have a harder time planning and funding more ambitious projects.