DAUPHIN, Pa. (AP) -- Three miles up a narrow gravel road in central Pennsylvania, a fenced-in radio tower atop a mountain represents a critical link in a $240 million public safety communications network the state began work on eight years ago.
Below the tower, a simple building contains racks of sophisticated electronics, the guts of a system designed to tie together 22 state agencies in a single centralized radio network.
Critics say replacing the state government's hodgepodge of largely incompatible radio systems has already taken too long and cost too much. Questions also remain about whether the system will work properly.
``This was behind schedule and over budget when the (Rendell) administration came to office; there are a lot of questions that span two administrations,'' said Karen Walsh, spokeswoman for the state Auditor General's Office. ``There are certainly concerns and there have been over many years about the cost of the program.''
The Statewide Public Safety Radio System signal now reaches nearly 80 percent of Pennsylvania's land area. About 4,000 state workers are currently talking on it, and about a thousand state troopers transmit data on it.
Eventually, planners expect 25,000 people to use the system for everything from snowplow-to-snowplow communications to checking vehicle registrations and finding the nearest park ranger. It is designed to let agencies talk to one another, which officials hope will improve response to major emergencies and disasters.
The communication network is supposed to serve at least 95 percent of every county, but deadline after deadline has come and gone, and state officials are not offering a finish date.
State Rep. Kelly Lewis, R-Monroe, said no further delays can be justified. ``We don't know when the next terrorist attack is going to occur. We don't know when there's going to be a major accident on an interstate highway,'' he said.
The Rendell administration awarded a $96,000 contract earlier this month to iXP Corp., a Lawrenceville, N.J., consulting firm, to determine the reasons for the delays, how much has been spent on the project and what remains to be done.
The biggest hurdle has been locating and building 198 giant towers, some as tall as 380 feet. The bankruptcy last year of Rohn Industries Inc. of Peoria, Ill., the towers' prime contractor, only further slowed a project that had once been scheduled for completion in April 2001.
``Ask anybody in retrospect now, who's involved in this project - they will admit that probably the completion schedule was too optimistic, too aggressive,'' said Adrian R. King Jr., Gov. Ed Rendell's deputy chief of staff. Despite the problems, King said the administration is committed to completing it.
State officials say that, despite the significant upfront cost, a consolidated system will be cheaper to maintain than the multiple independent systems currently in use.
They tout the high-tech features of M/A-Com Inc.'s ``OpenSky'' system - global positioning, data handling and encryption - as ways to make state government more efficient. M/A-Com, a wireless communications manufacturer based in Lowell, Mass., is making the system's radios and other electronics.
Reaching the entire coverage area will require 16 more big towers and about 400 more ``microcells'' to fill in the gaps in signal among the state's mountain valleys and remote areas. Bids to construct the remaining towers are expected to go out shortly.
Lingering questions remain about how well the system will operate when fully in place. The Nevada Highway Patrol recently began installing $10 million worth of M/A-Com radios in its vehicles, but troopers have been complaining of dead spots where they lose contact with dispatchers.
State police here won't replace their old radios until the project reaches its coverage and backup system goals, said technology services director Maj. Wesley R. Waugh. In the meantime, the department is using the system's data-handling capacity to send records to troopers in the field, a tool that has already helped make felony arrests.
``We have no intention of migrating to voice until we're sure those issues that are out there are addressed,'' Waugh said.
The state police also are implementing a $134 million incident information management system, a separate project that transmits over the statewide radio system.
A single statewide radio system was conceived as something that would primarily serve government agencies, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it became more of a priority to allow local emergency responders to hook in, a process called ``interoperability.''
It will be relatively easy to accomplish that in about half of the state's 67 counties. But in more remote areas, and where the existing radio systems are more primitive, switching over will require more funding, said radio project director Don Appleby, in the state's Office of Administration.
Even then, the radio signal won't be strong enough to reach hand-held portable radios commonly used by police officers and firefighters. That level of service requires either signal repeaters _ the state police are installing them inside vehicles _ or more towers.
Lancaster County, one of two Pennsylvania counties to purchase an OpenSky system for 911 use, is spending $35 million on a network of 17 new towers. It isn't expected to be functioning until at least 2006.
The iXP review is looking at the interoperability issue as well as barriers to getting state agencies to fully adopt the radio system. The agencies will need to spend about $54 million to buy radios _ money not included in the $240 million.
``It turns out that agencies haven't been able to support (it) as much as they would like and we would like,'' Appleby said. ``Without going into all the details, this office has been tasked with stepping up to support transition to help agencies make the move.''
A Harrisburg lobbyist for Motorola Inc., which lost the contract to M/A-Com, said he doubts OpenSky will ever work as it is supposed to.
``I defy you to go to any agency and have the two of them talk to each other,'' said the lobbyist, John O'Connell. ``They can't do it. This does not work. It's three years late, it's $200 million over budget and it does not work.''
The iXP report is due in August.