Flowing fuel & flying pigs

Will the power of markets or the power of government prevail in the debate over reversing the flow of part of the Laurel Pipeline?

 
As previously noted, Buckeye Partners is seeking Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission approval to bifurcate the flow of the cross-state pipeline that now delivers gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from the Philadelphia area to Western Pennsylvania.

 
Buckeye, citing a nearly 67 percent drop in fuel deliveries since 2014, wants to reverse the flow from Pittsburgh to Altoona. It says it can supply more product to the region and at a lower price from refineries in the Midwest.

 
Critics argue that the reversal would create a monopoly situation and raise fuel prices. The Laurel Pipeline is the only one delivering Philadelphia-area product to our region, they stress. And those Philadelphia-area refineries, already struggling, fear the loss of the Altoona-to-Pittsburgh business could be their death knell.

 
But The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that other market forces – such as falling world oil prices and the disappearance of discounted domestic crude arriving by rail – already had made those refineries far less economical.

 
There are, of course, many more moving parts in this equation. But the bottom line should be that the PUC allows markets, not government, to determine winners and losers.

 
After all, government’s track record in attempting to do so is abysmal.

 
About 60 countries now have privatized air traffic control systems. And Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, once again is pushing for that very change in the United States.

 
This has resulted in the usual wails and cries and gnashing of teeth that a privatized system will result in either less-safe flying skies from an operational standpoint, invite more terrorism, cost consumers more or all three. Others claim the U.S. system is too large to effectively privatize. Still others claim the system is too large to be effectively managed by government.

 
But the foreign record is good. Analysts point to Canada’s privatized system – known as NAV-Canada – as a model for the United States.

 
“By removing the function from the clutches of government budget restraints and political-driven appropriators, NAV-Canada has been able to rapidly upgrade its technologies and practices and to implement those with considerable success,” writes Dan Reed at Forbes.com.

 
That’s been a foreign concept to the U.S.’s Federal Aviation Administration.

 
“(T)he FAA has become the laughing stock of the global air transportation management world for its chronic false starts, delays, missed deadlines and misunderstandings of what’s actually needed or possible in terms of air traffic control modernization,” said Reed, who for years covered aviation at USA Today.

 
Shuster’s bill – the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act — would continue to fund the FAA until 2022. Then a newly created self-funding corporation – nonprofit and nongovernmental – would assume air traffic control duties.

 
Similar proposals have been batted about for years in Washington. But it’s clear that the current system has not kept pace with available technology.

 
All that said, Reed reminds that such a transition would not be easy. The Trump administration has, unfortunately, oversold the ease of that transition and misstated some of the basic facts, which has made the proposal something of a sitting duck at which critics continue to take shots, he says.

 
And then there’s this:

 
“There’s lots of political pork associated with this nation’s (air traffic control system) today,” Reed notes. “We have more physical facilities than necessary and not all of them are situated optimally.

 
“So some members of Congress are going to have to be convinced that voting for a bill that likely will result in a loss of high paying government jobs in their district is a good thing.

 
“That’s a tough sell.”

 
Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

As of Now, Host Fee Fix Deadline is Friday

Due to a Supreme Court ruling in late September of 2016, the General Assembly has to come up with a fix for the local share assessment that casinos pay to their host municipality and county.  When the language on the “host fee” was struck down by the Court, the General Assembly was given 120 days to come up with a new structure; that date, January 26th, came without a plan due to an appeal by members of the Senate to the Court which again granted an extension, which is to arrive this Friday.

According to one news article, there may be some quick movement on the plan this week, but there was even a mention of not getting it done and making language retroactive.  One member opined that a fix might not come until late June.

Weekend essay: Back to the deck

Wyeth and Winslow were bumfuzzled.

 
The Tortie cat sisters’ master was on the back deck wielding a menacing-looking contraption that “hissssssed” loudly as it spat out water that then bounced off the floor boards and created a dense mist.

 
Side by side the girls sat inside the closed sliding deck door, trying to figure out what this thing he called “power washing” was all about. Strange, you could almost hear them think, that as the water went down, the color of the deck changed right before their eyes.

 
Back and forth, forth and back, their master went for more than two hours. Finally, The Great Hissssssing Machine fell silent. The deck door opened. And Wyeth and Winslow cautiously began to explore.

 
But the next day, “Dad” was back on the deck. And, again, the door was closed. Only this time the cats noted he was half sitting, half lying on the deck, putting this hairy thing with a handle into a bucket, then transferring a clover-brown liquid to the floor boards, making an odd swishing motion while magically restoring color to the wood.

 
Forth and back, back and forth, their master went, and for nearly four hours. Finally, he was up against the sliding door and had to open it to complete the job. He shooed away the kitties to prevent them from stepping onto the freshly stained deck. Then, half in the door and half out, and on all fours, he finished the job.

 
But not before Wyeth hopped onto his back to get a better view.

 
“Don’t you dare jump onto that deck,” his master warned.

 
“Meow,” Wyeth responded in apparent understanding, then taking time to offer a friendly nibbling of “Dad’s” ear before retreating to her observation post.

 
Days later, all the hissssssing and swishing done, the deck was dry. Down went the all-weather rug and, atop it, the deck furniture. Unfurled was the retractable awning.

 
And Wyeth and Winslow quickly assumed their positions on one of the chair’s thick cushions so conducive to mutual grooming and sisterly slumbers.

 
Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Commonwealth Court Upholds County Court Decision on Sick Leave

The Commonwealth Court has upheld the December 2015 decision by the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas that struck down the City of Pittsburgh’s ordinance on paid sick leave.  We wrote about the proposal several times in 2015, including a piece that looked at the laws cited by the City as justification for passing the ordinance.

The City has indicated it will appeal the Commonwealth Court’s decision, with the next step being the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  The Court upheld another ruling by the Common Pleas Court related to a requirement on training for staff in commercial buildings in the City.

Water Authority Rejects Sale, but Wants to Study Effects of a Sale

An independent water authority whose service area includes a municipality in fiscal distress received an offer from a private company to purchase the water system but wants to study if a sale is in the “…best interest of its customers“.

No, this is not Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), but way over in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania with the Chester Water Authority, which serves the City of Chester along with other municipalities in other counties.  The Authority has 42,000 customers, about half of what is served by the PWSA.  For the customer base and the existing pipeline (656 miles) the Chester Authority was offered $250 million at a meeting this week.  That offer was rejected and the Authority board then agreed to conduct an analysis of what a sale would mean for customers.  Some of those customers that attended the meeting were not interested in the idea, and the Authority has provided a comparison of its rates to other private companies.

In Pittsburgh there is the unique situation in that there is already a private utility presence in the south hills section of the City (see slide 1 of this presentation), and the rates of customers served by the utility are subsidized so that their rates would be identical to PWSA rates (see slide 8).  So even though there is a private presence in the City of Pittsburgh the opposition to “privatization” has been evident (see here, here, and here for example).  The direction in Pittsburgh has been for a “restructuring” of the PWSA with a consultant and a blue ribbon panel.

 

 

 

If a Municipality Disincorporates, What Happens to Employees? Pensions?

Last week in a blog we wrote about the report on voluntary municipal disincorporation as proposed by a task force and the process it recommends for a municipality to move from incorporated to disincorporated and how services would be provided by the County.  As proposed by the task force, any municipality in the County “regardless of geographic size, population, or finances” could disincorporate.

As noted, both in the report and by our 2014 Policy Brief on changes to Act 47, the state allowed for a possible avenue to disincorporation for municipalities in Act 47 status that are deemed “nonviable”: meaning, in essence, the municipality can’t function, can’t provide services, has a tax base that collapsed, and can’t find a municipality to merge into or consolidate with.  In defining a “municipality” in the section on disincorporation, the definition does not include a city of the first class (Philadelphia) and says that a county, city, borough, incorporated town, township, or home rule municipality that would be in Act 47 status and does not provide police or fire service through its employees would be eligible for disincorporation procedures if found to be nonviable.

Of Allegheny County’s 128 municipalities, based on the 2015 reporting of municipal pension plan data on active employees, 98 municipalities reported actives for police and/or fire.  If the state were to keep the requirement that a municipality providing police and/or fire could not disincorporate, that would severely limit the number of municipalities that could even consider the possibility.  This goes without mentioning if the municipality is getting police coverage from another municipality, the state, or is part of a multi-municipal force and would have to compare the expenditures on that arrangement to what they would be paying the County if they disincorporate.

And then there is the question of what happens to municipal employees.  Based on that pension data for just the municipalities (no authorities, associations, etc.) there are 6,125 municipal employees.  Who knows what would happen with collective bargaining agreements should a viable municipality be able to disincorporate.  Or what the County would need to do should it find itself providing service to municipalities that, in aggregate, have almost as many employees as the County itself (6,831 in 2015).

And then there is the pension question with municipalities handling retirement benefits for its employees.  The 2014 law does give power to the unincorporated service district administrator to “provide for the transfer and administration of any municipal pension obligation to a private or public pension fund”.  That would probably include PMRS, which is a voluntary system for municipal pensions.  Since the task force report recommends municipalities coming into disincorporation debt free, how would pensions that are not funded above 80% be treated?

 

The human side of the opioid scourge

This week’s Allegheny Institute Policy Brief (Vol. 17, No. 22) explores the high and growing economic cost of this nation’s opioid abuse scourge. Indeed, the numbers are a stark indictment of the severity of the problem.

 
But far too many also know the human cost – the soul-numbing experience of losing a loved one to drug addiction.

 
Eleven years ago, before this story became the public health crisis it now is considered to be, its ugly tentacles reached into the McNickle family.

 
Below, a reprint of my Aug. 27, 2006, column in the old Pittsburgh Tribune-Review detailing my daughter’s heart-rendering experience with her late boyfriend. It was headlined “A death in the family”:

 
Losing a first love to a breakup surely is heart-wrenching. But losing that first love to death must stretch the limits of all known feelings. I don’t know that feeling, thank God. Sadly, my first-born now does.

 
My elder daughter Taylor — all of 20 and struggling to find her place in the world as so many 20-year-olds do — last week suddenly had her first love peeled from her heart. Suddenly, but not necessarily unexpectedly.

 
I don’t know if Taylor and Jay, 25, eventually would have married. But I do know they were in love. Dads know these things and understand love’s unstoppable force. Daughters might always be daddy’s little girls but we know our limits.

 
Jay strived to overachieve but found only little success, as “success” popularly is measured these days.

 
There was a tangle with the law as a juvenile; there was a more serious encounter as an adult.

 
There were jobs, fought for hard and won; there were jobs lost when the immutable law of life — actions have consequences — was invoked as surely as the sun sets each day.

 

There were accidents, near-death experiences — at the beach and on the road.

 
There was pain and there was anxiety. Great pain and wicked anxiety.

 
Taylor, no stranger to struggling to master the basic vagaries that life presents — but with far more successes than she gives herself credit for — formed a kinship with Jay. In her heart of hearts, she wanted to protect this fellow struggling traveler.

 
Indeed, for the last year and a half, she did. As best as a young woman a score old knew how and with a capacity for empathy — empathy, mind you, not sympathy — that runs deep and wise in Taylor beyond her years.

 
And in the process of protecting Jay, she learned much from him. A math whiz, he opened her mind to numbers and their relationships; it always had been her weak spot.

 
She also better learned humility and how to give of oneself when the gain is not pecuniary but personal: Jay set a wonderful example by regularly volunteering at a homeless shelter.

 
Taylor grew up. Her eyes were opened to a wider world of the far less fortunate. She learned to laugh more, particularly at herself. She spread her wings and embraced new things.

 
And she learned of love and to love — the deep, abiding kind that is the rarest of commodities, the kind for which most people long search but seldom find.

 
But Jay’s pain and anxiety were his demons. As happens with so many people — too many people — with both afflictions, prescribed drugs can become addicting crutches. If the addiction goes denied, untreated or half-treated, the demons win. And when the prescriptions run out and cannot be had, the demons demand substitutes.

 
The demons won Tuesday last. What he took, why he took it and where it came from remain question marks. But Jay died. In his bedroom. Photographs of “T,” as he called her, nearby. Found by his devoted mother. His sister had the lousy job of calling her brother’s girlfriend.

 
I held my sobbing daughter on her bed Tuesday night. Taylor wondered if Jay, a master of frugality who would bargain down a $1 flea-market item, had a last will and testament.

 
“I don’t know if there’s anything to leave to me,” Taylor said, the tears rolling down her cheeks as her dad did a poor job of maintaining his composure. “But if there is any money,” she said, “I’m giving it to the homeless shelter.”

 
“He’d be oh so very proud of you,” I said, finally breaking down.

 
And perhaps the demons won’t have the last laugh.

 
Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

The Economic Impact of Opioid Abuse Locally

Summary: The scourge of drug overdose deaths has hit Allegheny County hard with 414 deaths in 2015. Of those an estimated 280 to 300 were due to opiates, primarily prescription painkillers and heroin, up from 168 since 2008. Deaths per 100,000 people from drug overdose in Pennsylvania and the County are significantly higher than the national rate. What is the economic impact of opioid abuse and overdoses?

 
Nationally, overdose deaths from all drugs rose from 35,000 in 2008 to 55,000 in 2015—a death rate of 17.1 per 100,000 people. Opioid overdose deaths climbed from 20,000 to 33,000 (10.6 per 100,000) over the same period. Deaths from prescription drug overdose, moved from 15,000 to 17,000 between 2008 and 2011 and has actually leveled off and stood at 17,000 in 2015 (5.3 per 100,000). However, deaths from heroin rocketed from 3,000 in 2008 to 13,000 in 2015 (4.2 per 100,000) and account for most of the sharp rise in opioid deaths over the last four years.

 
Based on the latest data available from the Pennsylvania Coroners Association (PCA), Allegheny County’s 2015 fatal overdose rate from all drugs per 100,000 people was 33.6, nearly double the national rate. County deaths per 100,000 for opioid medicines and heroin were also double the national rate. How does that compare to other counties in southwestern Pennsylvania? The overall drug deaths per 100,000 were as follows: Westmoreland (35.2), Butler (25.2), Beaver (20.7), Armstrong (41.8), Fayette (29.9) and Greene (37.3). Clearly, southwest Pennsylvania has a major problem with drug abuse.

 
Last year Allegheny County’s Department of Health released a study titled “Opiate Related Deaths in Allegheny County” with 2008-14 data on overdose deaths in the County. That report found a steady increase with the number of deaths climbing from 168 in 2008 to 241 in 2014. Data from neighboring Westmoreland County in that same time frame for “drug and alcohol overdoses” shows a growth from 47 in 2008 to 174 in 2014. In light of the large jump in drug overdose deaths in Allegheny County in recent years, the national spike in heroin deaths over the last four years suggests most of the of the Allegheny County increase was due to heroin. The introduction of lethal additives such as fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl are adding enormously to the dangers of heroin use.

 
What is the economic impact—either of addiction or fatal overdose—on workforce costs, health care costs, the criminal justice system, etc.? The following reviews relevant studies produced the past few years.

 
A study by Birnbaum, et al, titled “Societal Costs of Prescription Opioid Abuse, Dependence, and Misuse in the United States” examined health care, workplace, and criminal justice costs. That study was national in scope and produced an estimate for 2007 of $55.7 billion. Workplace costs accounted for $25.6 billion (46%), health care costs accounted for $25.0 billion (45%), and criminal justice costs accounted for $5.1 billion (9%). As described in the study, “workplace costs were driven by lost earnings from premature death ($11.2 billion) and reduced compensation/lost employment ($7.9 billion). Health care costs consisted primarily of excess medical and prescription costs ($23.7 billion). Criminal justice costs were largely comprised of correctional facility ($2.3 billion) and police costs ($1.5 billion).”

 
A study by C. Florence, et al, from the National Centers for Injury Prevention and Control in Atlanta provides estimates for costs of prescription opioid abuse for 2013. This study reports that in 2013 almost two million people abused or were dependent on prescription opioids. Of that number, 16,235 died of an overdose that year. This study determined prescription opioid abuse had an economic cost of $78.5 billion. Of that, $26 billion was for health care, $2.8 billion for abuse treatment, $7.6 billion for criminal justice costs and $20.4 billion in lost productivity (a measure of lost wages and benefits). Productivity losses attributable to the estimated earnings of the deceased were calculated to be $21.5 billion.

 
Another study from Applied Health Economics and Policy analyzed health insurance claims by employees at large self-insured firms. The study found that compared to members who had at least one insurance claim between 2006 and 2012, opioid abusers’ health care costs were four times as large as non-abusers ($8,418 to $2,129 per year). What is worse, the study estimates that, based on the surveys of drug use by the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, the undiagnosed opioid abuse figure could be three times the 18.6 diagnosed abusers per 10,000 employees at the self-insured firms.

 
This study put work related costs to businesses due to employee disability payments and medical absenteeism at $3,770 per abuser. With a cost adjustment covering the last five years that number would be at least 10 to 15 percent higher. And using two million abusers as reported by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the national cost to firms would be $8.7 billion.

 
A report entitled “The Opioid Crisis in America’s Workforce” from Castlight, a benefits firm, found that “Nearly one-third of painkiller prescriptions funded by employer plans are being abused”. The report looked at data covering 2011 to 2015. Castlight reported that workers who abuse painkillers account for nearly half of all spending by employer plans on painkillers, and incur nearly twice as much in annual medical costs—on average $19,450—as non-abusers. The study says that employers are losing $10 billion a year from absenteeism and lost productivity—fairly close to our $8.7 billion estimate above. That figure is almost certainly conservative.

 
Comparable recent studies for heroin, the other major opioid being abused, have not been located. However one study (T L Mark, et al, US National Library of Medicine, Jan 2001) reports a $22 billion cost for heroin abusers in 1996. “Of these costs, productivity losses accounted for approximately U.S. $11.5 billion (53%), criminal activities U.S. $5.2 billion (24%), medical care U.S. $5.0 billion (23%), and social welfare U.S. $0.1 billion (0.5%).” Given that user numbers have doubled and health care cost have also doubled, it is not unreasonable to put today’s societal and economic costs of heroin at double the 1996 level or $44 billion—and it is likely even higher.

 
What do these national statistics and economic impact estimates suggest about the local economic effects of opioid abuse? Granted there can be problems with extrapolating national results to a local area, but they can be a useful approximation.

 
As a first step, the estimates for 2015 will focus on Allegheny County and Westmoreland Counties (the two largest in the region) as an indication of the magnitude of the problem. Other counties will be estimated in an upcoming Brief. In the simplest extrapolation, one would multiply the national cost of drug abuse per person in the U.S. by the county population.

 
However for a more precise calculation two pieces of information are required before national cost estimates can be applied; (1) the number of deaths from opioid medicines and heroin and (2) the number of abusers of heroin and opioid drugs. Estimates of county deaths can be obtained from PCA data. However, since recent county by county data for number of abusers is not readily available, estimates of number of abusers of each drug class will require an assumption, namely that the ratio of deaths to abusers of each class of drug is the same in the two counties as in the nation.

 
The latest national estimates for the cost of opioid medicine abuse and a 2015 estimate of heroin abuse cost based on extrapolating 1996 results are multiplied by the calculated number of abusers in the counties to produce cost of drug abuse. Note that if the assumption that death rates per user locally are equal to the national rates is not correct, but in fact local rates are actually much higher than the national rates, then the calculation of the number of abusers will be too high and the cost of abuse estimates will also be too high. Unfortunately, local data that could answer that question are not available.

 
This is dealt with by creating a second estimate of the number of abusers and costs of abuse through assuming that the death rate per abuser in the two counties is double the national rate. The assumption is reasonable in light of the fact that the counties’ overdose death rates per 100,000 people are double the national ratio. This assumption will cut the estimate of abusers in half and therefore the annual economic cost of drug abusers in half. The actual figures for the number of abusers and cost of abuse probably lie somewhere between the two estimates.

 
In the first estimate, the number of opioid medicine abusers in Allegheny County is put at 16,000 and the number of heroin abusers at 5,000. The costs for health care, crime, and lost wages and benefits are $472 million for opioid medicine abuse and $350 million for heroin. In the second calculation that uses a double the national death rate per abuser, the costs for opioid medicine abuse will be $236 million and heroin $175 million.

 
Note that the second estimates are close to the figures that would be obtained by simply multiplying the national costs of abuse per person in the U.S. by the county population.

 
Westmoreland costs by the first estimation are placed at $102 million for opioid medicines and $108 million for heroin. In the second estimate, the costs would be halved to $51 million for opioid medicine and $54 million for heroin.

 
It is important to note that all the estimates are just that although they are likely reasonable approximations of actual costs. They will diverge from actual costs depending on the degree of accuracy of the national findings in the studies used to estimate the local impact.

 
But, one thing is certain. These estimates show the costs of opioid abuse to be very high.

A Decade After Ballot Question, 13 Districts Partake of Tax Shift

Today is the municipal primary election, when voters select nominees for county, municipal, and school board offices.  There are no statewide ballot questions for voters to consider, so let’s take a look back ten years to the municipal primary of May 2007 when voters were first asked whether they wanted to reduce school property taxes via a higher income tax or the creation of a personal income tax for school finance purposes.

That question was part of Act 1 of 2006, which provided homestead exemptions funded by slot machine gaming, a cap for annual growth in school property tax that could be exceeded by either an exemption from the state or a ballot question to be approved by the voters of the school district, and a chance to expand a district’s property tax relief via approval of a tax shift.

As pointed out in the Department of Education’s FAQ document on the law, at the “May 2007 (primary) election – Every school district, except Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Scranton, will give voters the opportunity to approve local property tax relief by increasing the local income tax.”.  Every two years thereafter all districts except Philly would get the ability to bring the question up again.  As our 2008 report on Act 1 noted, the question was rejected in the 42 districts in Allegheny County in May of 2007.  None have approved since, even if a district brought up the question after 2007. The Governor at the time noted ““I am not surprised by the resounding defeat of the Act 1 tax shifting proposals. Unfortunately, in many cases, the full value of the property tax relief that the shift would have provided was not clear to the voters. I believe this contributed to the lackluster voter support.” Our 2014 report revisited tax relief from gaming and the tax actions districts had taken in the years since the law went into effect.

So how many districts, if any, took up the offer to net greater school property tax relief by shifting to another tax via referendum?  By 2015-16’s count in the Department of Education’s data 13 districts (2.6% of the 500 in the state) are collecting an earned income under Act 1.  There are none in southwestern PA; three are in Bedford County, two in Huntington County, and the rest in other counties in central and eastern PA.  In terms of dollar value generated, the district collecting the most money through Act 1 earned income tax is Central Dauphin School District, with $36 million in 2015-16.  It is not clear from the data if these districts took the opportunity to shift ten years ago of did it in a subsequent election.

Debating a pipeline’s reversal

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has scheduled a public comment session in Harrisburg on Tuesday to gather public input on what could be the best news for gasoline prices in Western Pennsylvania in a very long time. But it’s a contention some dispute.

 
Buckeye Partners, which owns the Laurel Pipeline, has filed a request with the PUC to switch the flow of the western portion of the 350-mile pipeline that transports gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from Philadelphia-area refineries to Western Pennsylvania.

 
That reversal, Buckeye says, would allow for cheaper fuel products from Midwestern refineries to be piped into the western half of the Keystone State.

 
Western Pennsylvania long has been plagued by markedly higher gasoline prices than those across the border and an hour away in Eastern Ohio. The additional supply, if demand remains static, would result in lower prices local, the company says.

 
But critics are crying “Foul!”

 
Some Western Pennsylvania businesses – Sheetz and Giant Eagle, primarily – and some elected leaders say the reversal will limit supply (the Laurel Pipeline is the only supplier of East Coast gasoline, they argue), create monopoly conditions and raise prices.

 
Those companies say they now have the ability to tap gasoline supplies that flow in both directions and can chooses the cheaper product at any given time.

 
Well, then why is there often such a dramatic price differential between Western Pennsylvania gasoline and that found a relatively short drive away (even when factoring in higher Pennsylvania taxes)?

 
Additionally, critics see the pipeline reversal as part of a larger plan by Marathon Petroleum to push well past Central Pennsylvania and challenge those Philadelphia-area refineries on their home turf.

 
Competition is a bad thing?

 
Those Eastern Pennsylvania refiners are none too happy to see their market share cut, given they already struggle with reduced capacity. Some of those operations, by the way, have been subsidized by taxpayers.

 
But Buckeye Partners says an increase in the volume of gasoline that could be piped into Western Pennsylvania will force prices lower. It insists, too, that it can meet the demand for reformulated fuels required in the Pittsburgh area for summer pollution reduction.

 
State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Westmoreland, told the Tribune-Review he believes a company should be allowed to do what it sees as a good business decision.

 
“The government shouldn’t be restricting the business,” he told the Trib. “The Legislature in the past has restricted Western Pennsylvania by mandating this summer gas issue. That results in higher prices for our residents.”

 
As do state taxes that, when combined with the federal impost, leave the Keystone State with one of the highest gas taxes in the nation.

 
The PUC has purview over this matter as part of the commonwealth regulatory regime. It’s up to the commission to separate fact from rhetoric to determine what would be in the best interest of consumers. And while one monopoly should not be ended to create another, state restriction of competition never is good for consumers.

 
Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).