Wyomissing, PA The state's top transportation officer touted local infrastructure overhauls, PennDOT's cooperation efforts and measures to help the public keep tabs on roadwork during an appearance Thursday in Wyomissing.And of course - as has become customary for state officials addressing the Berks County business community - PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richards talked about Route 222.She said the good news is that the planned overhaul of the highway's path between Reading and Allentown is considered a priority.

The first phase of what's likely to be more than a decade of work is tentatively scheduled to start this fall. That involves replacing the Route 662 intersection in Richmond Township with a roundabout.

PennDOT is still addressing local concerns about the work, Richards said. With major highway projects, she said, it's better for PennDOT to take time to get its ducks in a row rather than rush the work and risk having the project stall after it begins.

"Holding things up I don't think is necessarily a bad thing," she said.

Richards spoke at the Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce and Industry's annual transportation forum at The Highlands at Wyomissing. A former Montgomery County commissioner, she was tapped by Gov. Tom Wolf to lead PennDOT when he took office last year.

Richards highlighted new transparency efforts, such as the ability for the public to track snowplows and a new website - projects.penndot.gov - that gives updates and other information about ongoing construction projects.

"I think it's very important for the taxpayers to know how their money's spent," she said.

Richards said PennDOT's made a renewed effort to save money and avoid duplicated efforts by partnering with other state agencies. And more emphasis has been put on partnering with the private sector to improve efficiency, she said. She said Berks has been a leader in that area by merging the management of its BARTA bus service with Lancaster County's Red Rose Transit Authority.

"We're encouraging other transit agencies across the state to follow BARTA's lead," Richards said. "It's been a huge success."

Alan D. Piper, senior Berks transportation planner, said local planners are in the process of preparing the next four-year budget for PennDOT projects in Berks.

The latest draft includes $283 million in road and bridge projects, he said. Among that lineup are work on large and small bridges all over the county, a major wave of highway repaving, and overhauls of several problematic intersections.

Not included in that budget but also on tap is a series of projects to rebuild Interstate 78 through the county. And early planning work will begin on a $600 million redesign of the West Shore Bypass.

"(Route) 222 may be the glamor project," Piper said. "But the real nuts-and-bolts project that we need in Berks County is the West Shore Bypass."

New federal and state rules dictate that the majority of roads funding allocated to the Reading area must be used to catch up on maintaining the existing roads system, rather than adding to it. That means it could be a challenge to find funding to complete capacity-adding projects such as widening Route 222 and overhauling the West Shore Bypass.

In an interview after the presentation, Richards said freeing up more cash for such projects will largely depend on whether PennDOT is able to reclaim roads money that is being diverted to the state police budget.

"It's a large amount of money and that keeps growing," she said.

State lawmakers held several hearings in February to examine the issue. Richards said many lawmakers agree that the funding set-up needs to change but disagreement remains over how to then fund the state police.

Richards said she's helping to lobby for a dedicated state police funding source so the roads money can be returned to PennDOT. Several plans have been discussed and all require legislative approval.

"I've had very positive conversations with legislators on both sides of the aisle," she said.

Richards said some lawmakers have expressed support for dedicating a broad-based tax increase to state police, though many prefer to use the sales tax rather than the income tax. And she said there's been some talk of having municipalities that don't have local police help pay for the state police coverage they receive through the transportation funding they receive.

Contact Liam Migdail-Smith: 610-371-5022 or lsmith@readingeagle.com.