If there’s one thing Mike Carroll, newly confirmed secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation knows, it’s how things work in the state capital and especially at PennDOT.

After all, he spent 16 years as a Democratic state representative for Luzerne County, the last four as minority chairman of the House Transportation Committee that oversees PennDOT. Before that, he was the late Gov. Bob Casey’s liaison with the agency.

That’s why Carroll has moved slowly since he was nominated by Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro in January, working behind the scenes to build consensus and strengthen relationships with his former legislative colleagues before he pushes a particular agenda. The Republican-controlled state Senate unanimously approved his nomination two weeks ago.

Carroll knows PennDOT is a department all about numbers, whether it’s the nearly 40,000 miles of roads and more than 25,000 bridges for which the state is responsible, the 11 regional maintenance districts it manages, or the hundreds of numbers used to identify roads across the state.

But to him, the more important numbers are 102, 51 and 1: the majority of votes in the state House, the Senate majority and the number of votes the administration has, the lieutenant governor, to break any ties in the Senate.

“If we were in a utopian place, we could do whatever we want and everybody would be happy. But we’re not,” Carroll said in an interview last week. “We try to come in with the best ideas we can that the majority of people can support. Our partners in the General Assembly have an important role to play here, too.”

That means that even though Shapiro is following the Democratic administration of Tom Wolf, Carroll isn’t plowing ahead with the same plans and goals. For example, Wolf initiatives such as pushing to eliminate the gasoline tax as soon as possible and replace it with fees for ride-hailing services such as Lyft and Uber as well as fees for package deliveries, or the department’s yearslong refrain that its $7 billion annual budget is about $8 billion short of its needs aren’t anywhere near the top Carroll’s agenda.

Instead, the new secretary is concentrating on the state using $4.1 billion in already awarded federal stimulus funds as best it can for road and bridge projects and applying for as much additional discretionary federal funds as possible. The other major issue is making sure the General Assembly supports Shapiro’s plan to shift $100 million a year that pays for state police patrols on state roads from the Motor License Fund that should pay for construction projects to the state general fund, leaving the matching money needed for the stimulus funds.

In his mind, it is “too soon” to talk about long-range funding needs.

“I know I sound like a broken record,” Carroll said after the fourth time he sidestepped a question about longer-term items. “It all starts with the [stimulus money]. We’ll have $700 million this year and more over the next four years.”

Carroll acknowledged that inflation was eating away about 20% of that money in the first two years, but inflation has eased in recent months. He doesn’t believe it will substantially reduce the effectiveness of the federal money.

“Inflation is a national situation,” he said. “Over the last 20 months or so, sure, it was consuming some of that funding, but I don’t think it will be a major problem. We just have to deal with it.”

Carroll is acutely aware of the long-term funding concerns for transportation, but he stressed that it is a national problem brought on by increased efficiency in gasoline engines and the growth in electric vehicles. Those factors reduce gas tax revenue and create major problems for states such as Pennsylvania, which gets about 78% of transportation revenue from the gas tax.

In the coming years, the expectation is that motorists will switch to paying a fee for miles driven, which will apply to all vehicles. That changeover probably will occur over the period of a decade or more.

“That will demand conversations in 50 state capitals,” Carroll said. “Some states are sticking their toes in the water and trying some things, but we’re not there yet. That conversation is on the horizon.”

The fact that Carroll isn’t ready to push a broad new agenda yet doesn’t mean the department has been sitting idle. In the first 4½ months of the new administration, the department has been:

  • Working with other state departments to make sure the commonwealth has a role in train safety after the Norfolk Southern train derailment along the Ohio border near Beaver County. Rail traffic is mostly regulated federally, but the state has some say on railroad crossings, where the Public Utility Commission has oversight, and officials are using the bully pulpit to support safety efforts.
  • Collaborating with the new Commonwealth Office of Digital Experience. The department has made more than 20 driving forms available online rather than requiring motorists to go to their local license office. More will be added as the department does “anything we can do to make our services more convenient,” Carroll said.
  • Supporting new legislation, one bill that would allow work-zone cameras to catch speeders as a two-year trial period ends; another that would allow it to award contracts under a concept called “design-build best value,” where contracts wouldn’t have to be awarded to the lowest bidder if a contractor has special expertise in a particular area; and a third that would spend an additional $1.6 million to support small airports.
  • Reviewing applicants for several vacant district executive positions, including the one for Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties after Cheryl Moon-Sirianni was promoted to executive deputy secretary. Nothing is imminent, but Carroll said, “The bench is deep. I’m confident when we get a new district executive for District 11, they will be outstanding.”

Meanwhile, Carroll continues to strengthen relationships with the General Assembly. One of his first visits was to Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Johnstown, who heads the Senate Transportation Committee and had a bristly relationship with the Wolf administration for what he called a lack of communication.

Asked about Carroll’s first few months as acting secretary following a committee hearing in Oakland in March, Langerholc said, “So far, so good.”

That’s just what Carroll wanted to hear.

“The Legislature is a partner, and he has an important role,” Carroll said. “I look forward to sharing the reins of making changes in the operation of our department that benefit Pennsylvanians.”

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.