One museum – and the lawmaker who supports it – is an example of the problems in Pennsylvania’s highway funding system
Railroading has been part of Altoona, PA, since the town’s very birth.
In fact, the official history of the central Pennsylvania community notes the role the Pennsylvania Rail Road played in developing the town in 1849.
So it’s only natural that when the town looked to preserve a piece of its history, it was something linked to the iron horse – a place now known as The Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum.
Today, that era is the past, and the city is but one more town along Interstate 99, a north-south route, about halfway between where that road crosses I-80 and its crossing with the state’s turnpike.
Just as the town sits at the center of those two highways, and at the center of the state, its museum sits dead center of an issue related to those roads – the spending of highway funds on non-highway projects.
Riding the gravy train
Federal funds helped develop the railroaders museum into what visitors see today.
Back in 1993, the museum received $1.78 million of federal highway funds. That amount was combined with nearly $450,000 of state and local funds, giving the museum a total of $2.2 million of funding.
The money was used to restore a historic rail building, giving the museum a home.
The grant was on a list provided by The National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse. A fact sheet on the organization’s Web site says this:
“In the 1990s, the local Railroaders Heritage Corporation received $1.78 million in Transportation Enhancement Funds to create a new museum in the 1882 master mechanics building on the Pennsylvania RailRoad Yard. The Railroaders Museum preserves the legacy of the PRR, and celebrates the lives of those who built, maintained and operated the railroad.”
Elsewhere on the enhancements clearinghouse web site, documents indicate the museum was approved in 2002 to receive $1.28 million more in federal highway money, plus $320,000 in state funds – a total of $1.6 million.
The Altoona Mirror, a local newspaper, reported back in May of 2007 that the $1.6 million helped pay in part to aide the restoration of the historic K-4 1361 steam locomotive, and also for work in the rail yard, such as a quarter roundhouse to shelter the engine and rolling stock.
One of the supporters of that project is state Rep. Richard Geist – chairman of the Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee.
The lawmaker is a member of the museum’s board of directors, and back in 2002, Geist noted in a press release his part in acquiring grants for the museum.
His office declared in a statement that the grants were approved by the State Transportation Commission. And his office further noted that as chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Geist is a member of that commission.
According to Geist’s Web site, the representative and the rest of the committee passed out over $45 million to 153 projects in that round of funding – just one round of many in that transportation bill, and just in that one state.
Geist not only gushed in his release over the spending statewide – a year later, he joined another state lawmaker in sending a letter to the state’s congressional delegation, imploring them to oppose an effort to cut off the use of highway funds for such projects.
Railroading the governor
Back in May of this year, Governor Ed Rendell was in Altoona for a meeting to discuss transportation funding issues – including fiscal deficits faced by a mass transit system in that area.
Geist extended an invitation to the governor, a suggestion that while the governor was there –