(The Center Square) — Pennsylvania’s transportation infrastructure is a constant focus of legislative attention, fitting for a state with multitudes of bridges, roads, weather, and terrain that means unending maintenance costs. 

From public transit funding to electric vehicles and pedestrian safety, the General Assembly, local and state officials, and the public have prioritized the following topics in 2023.

Budgetary problems, cost-effectiveness

In April, an annual highway report produced by the Reason Foundation ranked Pennsylvania 41st for highway performance and efficiency.

The commonwealth has made some progress: from the condition of its roads, reasonable spending increases in line with inflation, and traffic congestion, Pennsylvania has improved. Fatalities, however, have gone up after declining for decades. The report argued that changing management practices could cut costs by as much as 30 percent.

Beyond road infrastructure, public transit is feeling some postpandemic pressure. 

In southeastern Pennsylvania, SEPTA faces an almost $250 million budget hole starting in 2025. Though ridership is returning, pandemic-era federal aid is winding down without local or state funds to replace it. In Pittsburgh, ridership remains lower than pre-pandemic numbers as other costs rise.

For some state and federal grants available for transportation improvements, small towns and rural areas get overlooked. PennDOT’s State Transportation Commission and the Center for Rural Pennsylvania warned in December that a lack of staff and capacity means that small localities don’t win grant funds. Without greater state support, those dynamics are unlikely to change.

PennDOT accountability

Beyond grants, local officials have also complained of PennDOT ignoring concerns. Rep. Tarah Probst, D-Stroudsburg, introduced a bill in March to track municipal complaints, such as issues with state-owned roads. It has failed to get any traction in the General Assembly.

Road safety

Pennsylvania has had a slight improvement on traffic fatalities, with deaths falling 4% from 2021 to 2022 after a years-long uptick. PennDOT and the General Assembly have called more public attention to school and pedestrian safety as well, advocating for the necessity of school-bus cameras to keep children safe. Speed cameras, too, are becoming more commonplace, including in active work zones.

In addition to cameras, broader considerations of road design are at play. In December, PennDOT’s Pedestrian and Pedalcycle Advisory Committee emphasized that design does more to control speed more important than things like cameras.

The public can expect truck parking expansion, too, with PennDOT looking at ways to add more parking availability into economic development projects, especially around areas like Philadelphia.

The Center Square has also given a rundown of this year’s events affecting electric vehicles, from subsidies to infrastructure to private ownership.

Anthony Hennen is a reporter for The Center Square. Previously, he worked for Philadelphia Weekly and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He is the managing editor of Expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region.

This article was republished with permission from The Center Square.

3 thoughts on “Year in Review: Pennsylvania transportation”

  1. One thing that has really bothered me lately (post-Covid) is the VISUAL condition of our roadways. Driving on our state-managed roadways, you see trash, high grass and weeds, roadway cinders and silt, and various cast off car parts all over the place. It really makes our beautiful commonwealth look uninviting to visitors and an embarrassment to me as a resident and a tax payer.

  2. Automated traffic enforcement is about ONE thing only, taking your money. It needs to be reported as such. Poor engineering, predatory ticketing, maybe more crashes, and maybe errors.

  3. Speed Cameras in Highway Work Zones

    The answer to any real or perceived problem of speeding in work zones is engineering countermeasures, not speed trap cameras. As shown in speed studies, speed feedback signs can have a significant effect on lowering excessive speeds where they are present. Although PennDOT credits speed cameras with a reduction in speeds and crashes where they are used, a review of the Annual Automated Work Zone Speed Enforcement (AWZSE) Reports shows little to no safety benefit from the use of speed cameras in work zones.

    According to the monthly Speed Statistics from each report from the beginning of the program in March 2020 through December 2022, there has been virtually no change in either the percentage of drivers traveling over the posted speed limit or the percentage of drivers traveling 11+ mph over the speed limit (excessive speed).

    Further, statistical analysis of the speed data, comparing the monthly data from each of the three years:
    1) 2020 vs 2021
    2) 2021 vs 2022 and
    3) 2020 vs 2022.
    found no statistical difference between any of the three time periods which indicates that any variation in the measured speeds was due to random fluctuation and not due to the presence of ticketing cameras.

    Although the AWZSE report shows a reduction in collisions in 2020 and 2021 compared to 2019, the likely cause of reduced crashes during this time period is the reduction in traffic volume and construction activities during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021. In fact, crashes in 2021 were significantly higher than 2020, likely due to the increase in highway travel and construction activity as we emerged from pandemic restrictions. Interestingly, the 2023 report does not provide collision data for 2022.

    Note that the reports do not provide data on injuries and fatalities. This is likely due to the fact injuries and fatalities to construction workers due to vehicles exceeding the speed limit in work zones is exceedingly rare. The vast majority of these injuries and fatalities are due to an accident involving construction activities and construction equipment, not passing motorists.

    School bus stop arm cameras

    The National Motorists Association has conducted extensive research into the causes and relative dangers of school bus passing violations. Their detailed findings can be found in Their Policy Brief, “Assessing the Necessity and Implications of Automated School Bus Stop Arm Ticketing Cameras.” They found that while violations of school bus passing laws may be common, collisions and fatalities due to these violations are, thankfully, exceedingly rare. According to data provided directly from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA):
    • Throughout the entire US, during the past ten years, there were a total of 4 fatalities to school-aged children involving a driver charged with illegally passing a stopped school bus when the red lights were flashing.
    • This represents an annual average of only 0.4 fatal collisions of these types and just 0.001% (one 1000th of 1%) of all US roadway fatalities.
    • The chance that a school child will be killed by a vehicle illegally passing the school bus is 1 in 22.75 billion.
    • Annually in the US, a child is about 19,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed by a vehicle illegally passing a school bus.
    • A child is 972 times more likely to drown in a pool or spa than to be killed by a vehicle passing a school bus.
    • A child is more than twice at risk of being struck and killed by the school bus as they are by another vehicle on the roadway.

    The varying levels of risk associated with different types of school bus passing violations explain why a substantial volume of violations does not directly correlate with a significant number of collisions or fatalities. Examination of school bus stop arm violation footage from various programs in Pennsylvania, highlights that a significant percentage of infractions occur immediately upon the deployment or retraction of the stop arm – either before children disembark or after they have safely boarded the bus. Further, a large percentage of captured violations occur when vehicles are traveling at extremely slow speeds. While these offenses technically violate the letter of the law, they often pose minimal danger to school children getting on or off the bus.

    Drivers May be Confused as to Basic School Bus Stopping Laws

    There exists a serious lack of consistency in school bus passing laws from state to state, which undoubtedly leads to driver confusion. But footage of bus passing violations strongly suggests that some drivers may also be confused about the stopping requirement itself. Some motorists mistakenly believe it is safe to slowly pass the school bus and are permitted to do so, even when approaching from behind. This is not an unreasonable assumption, especially on multiple-lane roadways where no crossing is permitted, and students approach and board the bus solely from the right (curb) side. Logically, on these roadways, even if a driver were to pass to the left while the school bus was stopped, no danger is presented to children as no one would be in the roadway crossing in front of the bus.

    Further, notwithstanding motorists’ obligation to understand all the rules of the road, drivers have reported that they misunderstood that the flashing red lights and stop sign on the school bus are to be treated differently than a stop sign or flashing red traffic signal at an intersection – where a driver must first stop but then may proceed when safe. One of the basic tenets of traffic control devices is that they provide a uniform and consistent message. However, when associated with school buses, flashing red lights and stop signs have a very different meaning and legal requirement than when used for other roadway applications, such as at intersections.

    Warning Time is Critical to Ensure Drivers Can Comply with School Bus Stopping Regulations

    As has been learned from using red light cameras, the amount of warning time given to motorists before the light turns red is a critical factor in how many drivers are likely to run the red light. The necessary warning time is highly dependent on the approaching vehicle’s speed and the driver’s reaction time. The speed of vehicles approaching a school bus stopped to load and unload passengers will vary significantly from roadway to roadway and whether the driver is approaching from behind or traveling towards the bus. As a result, the yellow light warning time that approaching drivers would need prior to activation of the red signal and deployment of the stop arm would also vary on each roadway upon which the school bus is traveling. Drivers approaching from the opposite direction would need twice as much yellow time since the bus and approaching vehicle are traveling towards each other, effectively halving the approach time.

    Unlike a traffic signal, the school bus driver manually operates the yellow and red signals on school buses. It is, therefore, virtually impossible for the bus driver to consistently provide the appropriate warning time for all vehicles approaching from all directions. This is especially true since requirements for how much in advance of the stop the driver must illuminate the warning lights vary from state to state. The inability to provide a consistent minimum yellow warning time as is required for traffic signals undoubtedly leads to numerous instances where automated tickets are improperly issued. This is precisely what has been observed in jurisdictions using this technology. Upon reviewing school bus stop arm violation clips accessible online, it becomes evident that many infractions occur just as the stop arm becomes active. Many of these violations are likely due to drivers not being warned sufficiently.

    Of additional concern is that, with traffic lights, the yellow signal is always followed by the red signal. In contrast, school bus drivers may illuminate the buses yellow warning lights but may not subsequently illuminate the red stop lights and stop arm. This creates an inconsistent situation where a buses yellow warning lights do not always mean “prepare to stop”, and can lead to drivers being caught unprepared for the “stop when red lights flashing” requirement, resulting in unintentional violations.

    Further, there appear to be no specific laws regarding at what point in the roadway a motorist must reach before they have “passed” the bus and no longer be subject to a citation for illegally passing when the stop arm extends. For example, Pennsylvania law requires drivers to stop no closer than 10 feet from the bus. If a driver has already passed this point before the illumination of the red flashing lights and full deployment of the stop arm, the driver may choose to continue on their way. Tickets issued in this scenario would represent entrapment as the driver would have had no valid choice to avoid violating the law.

    Considering the above technical issues, it is unclear how school bus mounted video enforcement systems can function fairly, given their mobile setting.”

    Sub-optimal Placement of School Bus Stops Causes Confusion for Motorists and Danger to School Children

    The location of bus stops plays a prominent role in the safety of school children boarding or alighting the bus. Per the National Transportation Safety Board, “A safe school bus route should avoid requiring students to cross high-speed roadways.” If possible, school bus routes and stops should be designed to minimize students crossing the roadway, especially at unprotected crossings such as those lacking a stop sign or traffic signal. If this rule were consistently applied, even on lower-speed routes, the safety of school children would be significantly enhanced. An added benefit would be reducing the number of locations where drivers would need to stop for the school bus. This would reduce drivers’ frustration, making them less likely to try to avoid being stuck behind the school bus for multiple stops, thereby decreasing the propensity for violations.

    Similarly, many violations occur when the school bus stops near an intersection, and drivers face a green traffic signal. In this scenario, drivers are put in a no-win situation when they are given a green light at an intersection but must also stop and block that intersection due to the presence of a school bus with its lights flashing. This is especially problematic for drivers approaching from the opposite direction. These situations make violations more likely due to driver confusion as to which traffic control device is controlling or to drivers attempting to clear the path by slowly proceeding past the school bus in technical violation of the law.

    Another lose-lose predicament is presented to drivers when the bus stops on the opposite side of an intersection. Depending on the timing and location of vehicles, drivers may be caught in the intersection when the red lights illuminate and stop arm is deployed.

    Motorists may also be placed in a Catch-22 situation when approaching a stopped school bus from an intersecting roadway. Drivers arriving at an intersection on a cross street may not see the school bus on the other roadway until they have committed to the turn. At this point, they may be unable to stop without slamming on their brakes and coming to rest within the intersection, so they are forced to pass the bus and potentially incur a hefty fine.

    Sadly, these “gotcha” citations are all too prevalent when automated ticketing is deployed.

    Ethical Challenges of Bus Camera Companies

    Of further concern is the previous criminal history of the for-profit automated enforcement companies running these automated ticketing programs, which profit immensely from their usage. For example, BusPatrol, a major player in the school bus camera industry, is simply a rebranded version of Force Multiplier Solutions (the company’s leadership team remains more or less the same), involved in a multimillion-dollar bribery scam that bankrupted the Dallas County School system. Shamelessly, BusPatrol hosts “Safety Summits” for the public and elected officials under the guise of improving safety for school children but which are, in actuality, giant advertisements to promote their ticket camera product.

    Verra Mobility (formerly American Traffic Solutions and Redflex), another bus camera vendor, has its own shady past, coincidentally being accused by BusPatrol of stealing their intellectual property to reverse engineer a bus camera ticketing system. Recently, this company announced to shareholders a new strategy to enhance profits by focusing on passing legislation throughout the US to allow the use of school bus cameras because “they are easier to sell to lawmakers.

    States that have authorized the use of stop-arm automated ticketing cameras are providing corporate welfare for the companies that run these programs.

    Alternative Solutions

    Elected officials and members of the public rightly have concerns for the safety of school-aged children traveling to or from school. We would, therefore, encourage a focus on solutions to problems that result in the highest number of injuries. Although school buses are students’ safest mode of transportation to school, as explained above, the majority of school children who are injured or killed in school bus accidents are hit by the school bus itself or while riding on the bus. Therefore, additional training of school bus drivers and students is critical to reducing these unfortunate incidents. Children especially should receive annual instruction on safety in and around school buses.

    In addition, technological improvements to the school bus, such as additional mirrors and possibly camera observation systems that ensure that the driver can see all children in the vicinity of the bus, should be considered.

    Relocating bus stops to reduce the need for students to cross the roadway could also significantly improve safety. Where this is not possible, bus stops should be located only where a traffic signal, stop sign, or other pedestrian crossing treatment, such as a rectangular rapid flashing beacon or HAWK signal, controls traffic.

    In California, children through grade eight are currently afforded added protection when loading or unloading from a school bus. Per the requirements of California Vehicle Code 22112 (d), the school bus driver or aid is obligated to exit the vehicle and escort all children through 8th grade across the roadway using an approved hand-held “STOP” sign to ensure that all children have crossed safely. This requirement is likely the reason that so few accidents occur in California due to violations of the school bus stop arm law. If other states adopted a similar rule, motorist compliance would increase, and an extra layer of safety would be added for students. Automated stop arm cameras would become even less desirable.

    Finally, it is essential to address the issue that many school bus violations result from drivers’ confusion due to differing state laws, conflicting traffic control devices in the vicinity of the bus stop, or the motorist’s unfamiliarity with the requirements of the law. Undoubtedly, some violations are willful, but increasing driver understanding of school bus passing laws and penalties would likely lead to a significant reduction in violations. One avenue is to enhance driver education manuals with well-written, well illustrated information on potential pedestrian conflicts associated with passing a school bus and what the law requires of approaching drivers. A well-conceived public outreach campaign similar to the “Click it or Ticket” campaign would also be of benefit. Additionally, school bus passing laws should be made consistent throughout the nation. Driver stopping requirements should be refined to include only those locations where stopping is essential to ensure the safety of students getting on and off the bus.

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