Let’s Make Deal on a Transportation Bill

Democrats and liberal op-ed writers are busy beating up Republicans for refusing to do what Republicans are supposed to always do, shut and vote for higher taxes to fund roads, bridges and public transit.

Republicans should agree on some revenue enhancements when Democrats are ready to make two key concessions. First, Democrats will agree to unlink highway funding from transit funding. The issues need separate priority and have many differences when it comes to the best way to fund them and at what level they should be funded. Second, Democrats will stop opposing the elimination of prevailing wage requirements.

Simply having Republicans hold their noses and vote for revenue enhancements for transportation will not serve the Commonwealth’s long term best interests. Savings opportunities will have been foregone and needed structural changes will not be enacted.

There is a reason Pennsylvania is now facing a multiplicity of serious financial problems. The state government-for too long-has kicked cans down the road as it kowtows to the power and influence of unions. Teachers, transit workers and other government workers have had their way with legislation regarding strikes, prevailing wages, pensions, layoff rules, and so on for decades. Every problem is met with demands for more money to feed the monster that has been created. Especially noteworthy are the Port Authority of Allegheny County as well the largest school districts in the state.

Previous governors have redirected highway funds to keep the Port Authority from going on strike robbing Southwest Pennsylvania of dollars needed to keep roads and bridges maintained. Why do the complainers about Republican inaction not want to hear about that abuse of power? Then too, tens of millions of Federal highway funds were redirected to the North Shore Connector in Pittsburgh. Where was the outrage over that? Likewise, almost a hundred million in state and local tax dollars were required to build the Connector. That’s a lot of road and bridge work. But as always the supporters of public transit were 100 percent behind building the tunnel regardless of costs: one that provides free rides to users.

The mindlessness encapsulated by this venture is the single greatest argument for Republicans to demand some concessions from Democrat and transit supporters before folding and voting for the higher revenue status quo fans want.

Commission Mechanics

Yesterday’s blog discussed the rather limited scope under which the Governor’ Corbett’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission (TFAC) will operate. Governor Rendell’s task force-the Transportation Funding and Reform Commission (TFRC)-likewise dealt with transportation issues, and the Executive Orders creating each respective group provides a good starting point for comparing and contrasting the two efforts.

Some Similarities:

  • Both Governors designated the Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation as the titular chair of the Commission
  • Both Executive Orders stipulated that Commission members would not be compensated for their service, other than travel and related expenses
  • Both Commissions received staff support from the Department of Transportation

Some Differences

  • Governor Corbett’s Commission is much larger with 35 members, whereas Governor Rendell’s had 9 members
  • Governor Corbett will select all members of his Commission, whereas legislative leaders made 4 of the 9 appointments on Governor Rendell’s Commission
  • Governor Corbett’s Commission is working on a much shorter time frame: the Executive Order was signed on April 21st, and the final report is due on or before August 1st of this year. Governor Rendell’s Commission was created February 28, 2005 and its final report was due on or before November 15, 2006 (it was actually submitted on November 13, 2006)
  • Governor Rendell’s Executive Order ordered operational audits of SEPTA and PAT
  • Governor Corbett’s Executive Order includes public and private use airports as part of the transportation mix

Labor Union Ad to Denounce Pennsylvania Roads

How deliciously ironic. The Laborers Union International announces it will run ads warning motorists about Pennsylvania’s structurally deficient bridges. And why are the bridges deficient?-according to the union not enough money is being spent on the bridges.

Perhaps if the bridges did not cost 30 percent more to repair than bridges in a right to work state with no prevailing wage requirement, they would be in much better shape. The union should be asked this question: In order to have safe bridges in an environment with very limited funds available to do the work, would you be willing to abandon the prevailing wage requirement and allow less expensive non-union labor do the work?

The answer would be no. So, here is what the union is really is saying. We prefer unsafe bridges to giving up any of our stranglehold over the policies of Pennsylvania. Indeed, they are really about soaking taxpayers regardless of the consequences. Looks like France from here.

Pennsylvania Roads and Bridges—Government’s Shame

While Governor Rendell has been working hard to keep increasing spending on education, the state’s roads and bridges and transit systems have been deteriorating to the point of being a threat to the state’s ability to grow and attract new businesses and residents. The latest report form the American Society of Civil Engineers paints a very sobering picture of just how bad the state’s transportation infrastructure has become.

The record of ineptness in dealing with the severity of the state’s roads and bridge problem is nothing short of remarkable. State budgets have grown much faster than inflation over the course of Mr. Rendell’s two terms, yet the state’s performance in addressing the roads and bridge issues remain shameful. Money has been shifted from highways fund s to support mass transit, the government dithered for years trying to get the Feds to approve tolling on I-80, the Governor supported unions in transit disputes and pushed for ever greater spending on education and economic development programs. And any discussion of lifting the prevailing wage laws that substantially boost road and bridge cost has been off the table.

What can be more important for the state’s economy than maintaining a good road system? And what has been the Governor’ priorities? Education and economic development spending. The payoff for these spending categories is very dubious. Failing to maintain roads will undoubtedly have a negative impact.

Water, Water, Everywhere…

Residents of the South Hills City neighborhood of Beechview have been dealing with a headache since mid-April when an 18 inch water main broke and sent the overflow onto the main thoroughfare, Banksville Road. Word came this week that the break will affect traffic through mid-June. This came not long after a water main break (of the 8 inch variety) on nearby Pioneer Avenue, which affected the high volume West Liberty Avenue.

Infrastructure-like water and sewer lines, roads, bridges, public buildings-crumbles; there is no denying the fact (the point person on the Beechview water line break noted "We put a lot of pipe in, just like we did with roads and bridges, about 100 years ago. Now it’s all reaching the end of its lifespan") and the impact that heavy use places upon it.

But we are reminded of the comments made by the past chairman of the region’s premiere organization aimed at "growing the region" who said in 2007 that "our roads, our infrastructure couldn’t handle a 15 percent growth rate. We couldn’t handle a 10 percent growth rate". So the region continues to experience slow to minimal growth and the impact of crumbling infrastructure.

The problem with minimal growth is that when the ever-important infrastructure begins to crumble there are fewer people around to shoulder the cost through their taxes, user fees, and/or rates than before. Not good news for a region that is expected to deal with stormwater/sewage issues, road upgrades, and a broke mass transit agency on top of the other desires of area governments and school districts.

What is the Next Fix for PA’s Transportation Needs?

"…tolling I-80 from border to border is a highly contentious issue and could face substantial difficulties in obtaining Federal approval"-

Allegheny Institute Policy Brief, August 28, 2007

As we pointed out for the better part of the last three years, the state’s plan to ask the Federal government to allow for tolls to be placed on Interstate 80 in order to generate revenues for the state’s roads, bridges, and public transit systems was going to be a long shot. At the time there were other states waiting for permission to levy tolls on previously un-tolled roads, but that was for upgrading and maintaining the roads themselves, not for other transportation needs. That goes without mentioning the negative economic impacts placing tolls on I-80 could have had in the northern corridor.

Near the close of 2007 we suggested that "a major overhaul of the [Act 44] or, better yet, a complete rescission seems to be the best option for Pennsylvania". Yet the state pressed on, ignoring a letter from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in December of 2007 that the plan was not well thought out; the plan was rejected in September of 2008, yet the following May Turnpike officials still felt the application was "viable" and was hoping for a more favorable response from the Obama Administration. That hope was dashed by yesterday’s rejection.

So what follows this episode? The state House Transportation Chairman has said that Act 44 was "plan B" and now there is an indication a special session will be called by the Governor to address possible solutions. Shouldn’t that have been in the works in September of 2008? How did they not get the message?