Has SPC Derailed Flex Plan?
In Policy Brief Volume 10, Number 39 we discussed the Governor’s mention of the possibility of “flexing” highway money to help the Port Authority (PAT) with its impending deficit thereby repeating actions from earlier years when he was able to convince the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission (SPC) to approve a funds shift. In that Policy Brief we asked “will the SPC acquiesce” to the Governor’s request?
For the moment at least, it appears the answer is a resounding “no”. The SPC-a deliberative body that encompasses the ten county area and makes decisions on how to allocate state and Federal transportation dollars and establishes other economic development priorities-passed a resolution stating that it does not wish to go down the fund flexing road again. One SPC member noted that “it would be disingenuous on the part of this body to even entertain the idea again”.
There are 61 votes on the Commission and 15 members at a meeting constitute a quorum. Membership consists of ten Southwest Pennsylvania counties, the City of Pittsburgh, PAT, PENNDOT, DCED, and other transit operators. Federal agencies serve in a non-voting capacity. Half of the members-31-were not present at the meeting and there are two vacancies on the Commission. Of the 28 votes present 22 voted “yes”, that is to say in favor of the resolution opposing the shifting of highway funds, two representatives from Allegheny County voted “no”, and four abstained. In short, the sentiment of the Commission appears to be strongly opposed to flexing any additional dollars to PAT.
This comes after the SPC four times authorized flexing highway money for mass transit purposes in the early part of the decade, undoubtedly under pressure from state officials to do so. And though the resolution vote rejects shuffling money around for non-highway use, the SPC called on the Legislature to do something about funding transit. Calls for permanent and dedicated transit funding as an alternative to flexing highway money go back to at least January of 2005, prior to the formation of the Transportation Task Force, prior to the approval of Act 44 and the plan to toll I-80. As we have pointed out on many occasions, PAT’s problem is not inadequate revenues, the problems are inability to lower per passenger costs through containment of employee costs and the predilection to build expensive underperforming capital projects.
It is easy to see why the resistance to flexing money may have become more pronounced this time around: the SPC recently had to make the difficult decision to drastically cut its proposed spending on roads and bridges in its long term Transportation Improvement Program. The anticipated four year spending plan was $2.68 billion but will now fall to $1.8 billion, a decrease of $880 million. Part of the fallout was a result of the previously mentioned ill-fated I-80 tolling plan.
So what’s left for PAT? If the SPC holds firm and resists any attempt to flex money then the fare increases, layoffs, and service cuts on the table will most likely be put into place. Unless of course, the Governor, who is currently touring the state in an effort to come up with another transportation fix, is able to tap another source of money at his disposal to weather the current transit funding storm or possibly convince the Legislature to raise taxes or create a new tax. Higher taxes would seem to be off the table in light of upcoming elections and the voter sentiment against more taxation.
The Legislature could help PAT’s and the taxpayers’ long term problems by removing its transit monopoly and eliminating the right of transit workers to strike. In the short run, Harrisburg could offer some additional dollars contingent on union wage and benefit concessions-perhaps on a dollar for dollar basis. The lack of any such talk points to the state’s inability and unwillingness to tackle problems head on, especially where unions are concerned.