As Congress struggles with how to resolve arguably the most serious financial crisis to confront our nation since the Great Depression, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell attempted to complicate the process by injecting into the debate a proposal to include $100 billion in the mix for highway infrastructure funding.
Aside from the incredibly self-centered nature of bringing an unrelated issue into an already intractable set of circumstances, Rendell put a spotlight on one of the central failings of his administration: providing the core government service of adequately maintaining our state's roads and bridges.
Rendell, as usual, advocates massive government borrowing. That, however, has the effect of simply passing the problem along to the next generation — or two — of taxpayers. The fact is Pennsylvania must develop a comprehensive strategy for funding what everyone realizes are necessary massive repairs and upgrades to our aging highway system.
To be fair, the Governor has been willing to try a free market approach. Supporting the leasing of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to private enterprise is a bold step for an elected official, especially a Democrat. But the flaw in the leasing plan is not in the concept, but in where the money would go: to pay for improvements to state roads and bridges other than those in the turnpike system.
There are a number of other funding proposals floating around the legislature, and if you sift through them and pull from each the strongest ideas a framework for solving the highway infrastructure funding crisis actually emerges. Here are the steps which, if enacted together, would put Pennsylvania on a path to resolving our infrastructure funding crisis:
• Establish a commission compromised of non-governmental transportation industry business executives to review and recommend ways to cut costs and operate the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) and Port Authority Transit (PAT) in Pittsburgh more efficiently. The cost of operating those agencies must be reduced significantly by adopting the commission's proposals.
• The commonwealth will cease to "flex" or divert federal highway funds to SEPTA and PAT and invest the money instead in roads and bridges — the purpose for which it was intended.
• Enact a proposal by state representatives Keith McCall and David Argall to move $50 million in funding each year from the Motor License Funded to road and bridge repair — again the purpose for which the fund was intended. Funding for the Pennsylvania State Police, which now eats into the fund's resources will be incrementally moved to the state's general fund.
• Re-bid the turnpike lease in an effort to attract a higher bid. If enough money cannot be generated by a general leasing of the turnpike, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission should be reformed, streamlined, and the appropriate functions of that agency individually leased out to the private sector.
• Dedicate all funds received from leasing the turnpike, or utilize the turnpike's bonding power to complete massive upgrades to the turnpike system. Upgrades should include widening the highway to six lanes across the state, and to eight lanes in the Philadelphia region where it also serves as a commuter highway.
These steps, taken together, would invest billions of dollars in construction money into the state's highway and bridge system without the levying of new or additional taxes and with borrowing done only that will be repaid with toll dollars, not tax dollars.
Not only would this plan give Pennsylvanians the modern, efficient highway system we deserve, but it would also have the effect of creating thousands of new jobs in the highway construction industry during a national economic downturn. But, it wouldn't be a government "make work" social program, rather it would be an economic benefit brought about by government fulfilling what is one of its core functions.
State government collectively, the governor and the General Assembly, has failed to address our transportation funding needs in any meaningful way. Serious time was lost in pursing an ill-fated effort to toll Interstate 80, which was a bad idea from the get go. But, in the ashes of that debacle are the embers which could ignite a creative, market-based solution to our transportation funding needs. That is if anybody in Harrisburg is willing to exercise the type of leadership needed to weave together the best elements of these dispirit proposals into an achievable and workable plan.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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