DAMASCUS, PA — On the evening of Thursday, December 19, a gymnasium full of unhappy Wayne County motorists finally got a direct answer from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation …
DAMASCUS, PA — On the evening of Thursday, December 19, a gymnasium full of unhappy Wayne County motorists finally got a direct answer from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) after years of complaining about road conditions: “You’re right.”
The town hall was attended by several PennDOT officials, state Assemblymen Jonathan Fritz and Michael Peifer, Sen. Lisa Baker, commissioner Brian Smith and county residents, many of whom are part of the Facebook group, Wayne County Roads-Citizens Holding PennDOT Accountable.
Fritz told the crowd a story about taking a four-hour tour of Wayne County’s roads with PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards. Afterward, Richards told Fritz, “On a wholesale basis, these are the worst roads I’ve ever seen.” At their next meeting, Fritz asked for $15 million over a three-year period for both Wayne and Susquehanna counties. Instead, Wayne County received $300,000 and Susquehanna $500,000.
“I share that story with you because there’s a theme there, and I know the theme: that for way too long we have been neglected, we have been forgotten about,” Fritz said.
Rich Roman, recently appointed executive of PennDOT’s District 4 (Lackawanna, Luzerne, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties), said that PennDOT has lost its way in past years, specifically regarding rural regions like Wayne County. He said that there is now some fresh blood in the administration, and promised that things are going to be different moving forward.
Other PennDOT officials went over a five- or six-year year plan they have to turn the district around. The plan includes resurfacing Interstate 84 and State Route 191. Residents were unimpressed with the plans for I-84, interrupting the presentation and asking PennDOT to focus on county roads for the evening. However, they applauded the plan to resurface SR-191, which is expected to take place in spring of 2020.
PennDOT also gave some insight into the budget. Wayne County has a budget of $18.2 million. About half of that goes toward paying personnel. After groundskeeping, equipment repair, fuel, signage, lighting and other costs, there’s about $665,000 leftover that can actually be used to address the kinds of road repairs that residents are requesting.
During the Q&A, a woman pressed Roman about the budget. “The motor license fund which is dedicated for roads and such has $3.8 billion in it, and if you divided that equally among the 67 counties, that’s $56.9 million each. So why is Wayne County being short-changed?”
Roman responded that the fund is not divided equally, because it gets put through a legislatively-mandated formula based on traffic, trucks and bridges. Baker then took the microphone and said that she shares the same frustrations about that formula, which she said has not been updated since 1997 and originated in 1980. She said she has introduced legislation into the Senate to reevaluate and modify the formula.
Ronald Huber, one of the administrators of the residents’ Facebook group, asked Roman about their pothole policy. Specifically, why if you damage your vehicle on a pothole and ask PennDOT to pay for it, PennDOT will send a letter back saying that it isn’t liable because potholes are “naturally occurring.” Furthermore, he asked how long is PennDOT allowed to go without fixing a naturally-occurring pothole before it can be considered negligence. Roman said that PA state law indemnifies PennDOT for pothole damage.
Other residents made suggestions to PennDOT, such as privatization and looking into innovations like robotics and artificial intelligence. A former PennDOT employee said that when he worked there in the 1990s, the crews had 10-15 workers and that now they have “skeleton crews.” He called on the state representatives to get money from Harrisburg to beef up manpower.
Roman, who fielded most of the residents’ questions, mostly nodded and agreed with all the residents grievances, sometimes vowing that things are going to get better. Many residents expressed gratitude to the officials for coming to the town hall, but an air of skepticism about their promises was evident throughout the room. One resident, an ambulance driver, told a story about trying to get an injured child to Wayne Memorial Hospital and getting delayed because of the condition of SR-191. He aroused a standing ovation with his question, “If it was your kid, would a five- or six-year plan be fine?”