Transportation, internet and industry take center stage at governor-sponsored event
LOCK HAVEN — For residents of Clinton and Centre Counties, transportation, internet and jobs were the biggest issues raised at Gov. Tom Wolf’s “Cabinet in Your Community” event Wednesday at Lock Haven University.
Secretaries Dennis M. Davin (Department of Community and Economic Development), Jerry Oleksiak (Department of Labor and Industry), Russell Redding (Department of Agriculture), Robert Torres (Department of State), C. Daniel Hassell (Department of Revenue) and Leslie S. Richards (Department of Transportation) answered questions to an audience of over 200 from all over north central Pennsylvania.
Representatives from the state police attended and representatives for State Rep. Glenn Thompson, State Rep. Mike Hanna and Sen. Joe Scarnati were also present.
Julie Slomski, director of the Governor’s Northwest Regional Office in Erie, said that through panels like this, the office aims to be accessible to its constituents.
The secretaries emphasized working across agencies and working in constituents’ best interests.
“There’s not much that we do that doesn’t intersect with local government,” said Secretary Davin of DCED. “Our work is also leveraged by each other.”
“We’re helping businesses small, medium (and) large have the opportunity to grow and expand here,” said Secretary Redding of Agriculture. “We’re trying very hard to connect with the people.”
Secretary Hassell, whose revenue department collects lottery revenue to fund state programs for senior citizens, said he wants to expand tax credits and the property tax rebate for seniors.
“We want to make the tax system and the lottery better for the people of Pennsylvania,” he said.
Secretary Oleksiak, of Labor and Industry, said he wanted to focus his department’s efforts on workforce development and apprenticeship training, especially for previously unemployed people.
PennDOT’s Secretary Richards, who was once a township supervisor and county commissioner, laid out two of her department’s initiatives — PennDOT Connects, to gather community input on transportation needs and projects, and Road Maintenance and Preservation (MaP), which will use recycled asphalt to pave roads more sustainably and save money.
Secretary Torres of the Department of State also emphasized the importance of businesses and start-ups in Pennsylvania. He said his department has worked hard to get the processing time of business, corporation and charity licenses down to one day, in some cases.
He told Clinton County Commissioner Pete Smeltz that discussions about securing funding for counties to update their voting machines were happening and that he recognized it was a big issue for county governments.
Several attendees brought up the issues of funding for and access to transportation.
Lisa Davis, director of the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health at Penn State, said transportation to and from medical appointments for people, especially the elderly, in rural areas is a big concern. She said her office is working closely with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and wanted to know if PennDOT was working on these issues.
“Non-emergency transport in rural areas is a huge problem,” said Richards.
Through PennDOT Connects, Richards said her agency is tracking where the closest medical facilities to rural areas are, where the most common routes are requested, where gaps in community transportation are and how to incorporate rideshare company input. She also said PennDOT is working with the DOH and looking at applying to grants to fund better rural access to transportation.
Clinton County Commissioner Jeff Snyder asked Richards what could be done to facilitate the legalization of All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) driving on highways throughout Pennsylvania, both for fun and for necessity.
Richards gave a cautious answer, due, in part, she said, to a string of fatal accidents related to underage children driving ATVs.
“Many ATV drivers do not have licenses,” she said. “These are serious discussions.”
She said PennDOT is not anti-ATV in any way and is in favor of people driving ATVs on state park lands and designated driving trails.
But she said there are also environmental issues associated with increased ATV use on non-designated trails and permits would have to be involved to allow them to drive on highways.
“We know ATVs, they’re a lot of fun,” she said. “But safety must come first.”
She also discussed issues surrounding railroad transport, saying PennDOT’s relationship with the Rail Bureau is one of the most “complex and complicated partnerships we have.”
“You may have noticed there’s more cars…stopped at a rail crossing,” she said. “It takes longer because we are adding more (rail) cars” to transport more materials.
Richards said PennDOT is hoping to move forward with work on the Interstate 99 to Interstate 80 interchange.
The project is not on the current Transportation Improvement Plan, but The Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County held a news event on Oct. 30 to announce a new “Drive Forward” campaign to build support for funding for the project.
“It’s basically a high-speed to high-speed connection,” said Karen Michael, the District 2 executive for PennDOT.
The estimated $185 million project will scrap connections from local roads to interstates, including the lefthand turns from Jacksonville Road onto I-80 and from I-80 onto Route 26/Jacksonville Road and replace those with high-speed connections. It will also add a local-to-local connection from Shay Lane to Route 26 in Marion Township.
“We want to prevent that stop and go traffic” from the lefthand turns said Richards, because it leads to more accidents. “This is the best way we can improve safety.”
PennDOT is applying for federal funds through the Infrastructure For Rebuilding America (formerly Fast-lane) grant to finance the project.
Issues of transportation also led to questions surrounding more reliable broadband internet access.
“Broadband connectivity is critical in our rural regions,” said Bill Seigel, executive director of SEDA-Council of Governments.
He told the story of a man who regularly loaded his work documents onto a hard drive, drove miles to the nearest printing shop to print them and drove back to work. Then, he asked if PennDOT planned to lay conduit for broadband internet while working on existing road projects
Richards said she is involved in an effort, with regional Government Affairs and Outreach Director Mark Smith, to install broadband access on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. With the advent of smart and self-driving vehicles, she said, broadband access on roadways will be critical. She also said hundreds of traffic signals are connected to wireless internet as are many bus systems, a technology that increases reliability and subsequently ridership. Announcements on these efforts will be forthcoming following a meeting Monday, she said.
Davin also mentioned that when Gov. Wolf visited the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania to tour natural gas drilling and compression sites, he was unable to get broadband access. The lack of internet connectivity made him realize broadband access for rural parts of Pennsylvania is “definitely a priority,” Davin said.
Jobs and industry
As for jobs and industry expansion in the state, many attendees were looking at ways to make Pennsylvania marketable.
One man, who did not identify himself, cited the outmigration of Pennsylvania citizens and the exiting of revenue producers as an obstacle to industry resurgence in the state. He asked Davin if institutions like LHU and Penn State could be built upon and out of state industries could be enticed to come to Pennsylvania due to lower tax rates.
Davin said he wanted to focus on developing industries and small businesses within Pennsylvania that have the opportunity to grow.
“I’m a strong believer in economic development,” said Davin. “We have an opportunity to market Pennsylvania…we have a tremendous story to tell.”
He emphasized that in 2016 Gov. Wolf’s administration helped get rid of “an onerous business tax,” the Capital Stock Tax, which was in place since 1840.
“We need to show the world, the nation, Pennsylvania, that Pennsylvania is a great place to do business,” he said.
In response to a question on corporate tax rates, Hassell said Gov. Wolf has looked at decreasing those rates to encourage more business to come to Pennsylvania.
“It has to come down,” Davin said of the corporate tax rate. “I think the governor has been passionate about that.”
On that vein, Centre County Commissioner Mark Higgins said the state needs to create more agricultural processing plants and jobs. He said he wanted to see the state add a couple more strategic cheese-producing plants.
Redding said agricultural production is a long-term, viable industry. He said his department has put a lot of effort into the dairy processing industry.
“We’ve done a phenomenal job producing,” he said, but Pennsylvania needs to do a better job processing dairy.
He said in order to implement more agricultural processing plants, his department wants to look at what the business structure of those plants would be.
Don Kiel, senior principal program analyst for SEDA-COG, mentioned the importance of filling gaps in natural gas development, geographically and funding-wise.
He said he would like to see funding to support virtual pipelines for regions where natural gas delivery is not feasible through physical pipelines.
Redding said the agriculture department would need to look into how virtual pipelines fit into the current infrastructure, or if completely new infrastructure will be required.
Lyn Garling, a small farmer from Rebersburg, asked how Pennsylvania is going to be more welcoming to people wanting to work in agriculture, particularly migrant and seasonal workers.
“You need a skilled workforce to support (agricultural work),” said Redding.
He said the state needs to continue supporting K-12 and land-grant university agricultural programs. On the topic of temporary workers, he said his department would like to help producers access the H-2A guestworker program and look at reforming it.
Oleksiak of Labor and Industry said workforce development should be just as important as economic development, and he stressed that apprenticeship programs in agriculture would help that issue.
Oleksiak also discussed the unemployment compensation bill the state Senate just passed, which Gov. Wolf is expected to sign, that provides $115 million over the next four years to fund the cost of operating the system and modernize the technology.