A Great Train Robbery?

In a blog this past April we wrote about Pennsylvania’s efforts to get a piece of the money that would be recirculating due to the rejection of a rail project in Florida. Pennsylvania wanted to use the money to (yet again) improve the speed of travel between Harrisburg and Philadelphia. In early May the state got $40 million to dedicate to that corridor.

So what of the western half of the state? A PENNDOT study said "increasing service from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh is a logical progression to create a successful corridor linking most of Pennsylvania". But don’t look for travel time to be anything remotely like the connection in the eastern part of the state: right now a five hour trip from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg would be reduced to a four hour trip, and even that won’t happen in one fell swoop, but rather incrementally. One consultant at a meeting on Monday discussing the idea said "the likelihood of reaching 110 mph in this corridor is unlikely at this point…what we’re really talking about is higher-speed rail."

And again, it won’t be a far stretch to imagine that there will be recurring requests for money to make the "somewhat faster" connection happen.

Buses, and Trains, and Trucks, Oh My!

The Governor’s transportation panel met in Harrisburg on Monday to hear presentations on mass transit, rail, and truck modes and discuss funding options for what is pegged at $10.7 billion of "unmet needs" in the state’s infrastructure. With three separate modes to receive testimony upon, there is a lot of information for the panel to digest as it works toward issuing recommendations by August.

Here are some of the interesting factoids taken from the presentations:

Transit-When considering the funding for the state’s transit agencies, Federal and state subsidies provide 50% of SEPTA’s budget with local funding and fare revenue providing the remaining 50%. All other systems derive much more funding from Federal/state sources with PAT at 65%, other urban systems (in total) at 70%, and rural carriers at 80%. PAT accounted for 15% of the 432 million boardings in FY 09-10. The highest base fare for transit-levied by five systems-is $2.

Trucking-Roughly 1.2 million tons of freight are moved each day in PA. The industry in PA pays $1.39 billion in state and Federal taxes and fees annually. Truck-related fatalities per 100 miles driven fell in recent years.

Rail-Some $40 million from the capital budget and the rail funding assistance program is dispensed in Pennsylvania.

How to fund the state’s transportation needs? That question was given a 16 page treatment looking at existing sources, new sources, short-term, long-term, etc. Everything from increasing registration fees, tire fees, rental and lease fees and taxes were mentioned, along with dedicating certain sources of revenue to specific uses (like driver license fees to the state police or small games of chance for transportation) along with new forms of local taxation for transportation needs (sales tax, income tax, etc.). Many of the funding options were raised by the previous Governor’s transportation panel in 2006.

Can Western PA Board the Gravy Train?

Florida has declined $2.4 billion in Federal funding for a Tampa-Orlando high speed rail link, noting that it likely cannot pay to operate the system once built. What a contrast in outlook compared with officials here, whose "use it or lose it" attitude kept the boring of the twin tunnels of the North Shore Connector moving forward. Somehow, someway, someone will have a plan to fund operating the system, but that is another story for another day.

The key issue with the Tampa story is that the $2.4 billion now goes up for grabs and Pennsylvania is right in line for a slice of the pie. If we are to believe what local officials said here a few years ago Tampa may never get another shot at Federal money since they turned this opportunity down. What do Pennsylvania officials want to put it towards? Newspaper reports say they have applied for $248 million for additional improvements on the Harrisburg-Philadelphia connection, where the money could increase travel speeds from 110 mph to 125 mph. Note that the corridor received $145 million from 2002-06 and $26 million in 2010.

At some point the incremental improvements-in this case, spending $248 million in order to increase speed 15 mph-just are not enough and the purported benefits of rail travel will have to stand on their own merits.

That’s especially true if the government recognizes the opportunity cost of the rail money and the fact that there is another part of the state to traverse. Federal money has funded half of an upcoming $1.5 million feasibility study to determine what good would come of improving the connection between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. The study would presumably confirm what PennDOT stated in an October 2009 funding application that "Increasing service from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh is a logical progression to create a successful corridor linking most of Pennsylvania. The improved service corridor would encourage increased rail travel between key cities such as Harrisburg, Altoona and Pittsburgh as well as to other Midwestern destinations in Ohio and beyond".

Given the fiscal reality facing Federal, state, and local budgets, and realizing that taxpayers have already invested in the Harrisburg-Philadelphia connection, and realizing that returning the funds from the de-committed Florida project to taxpayers is a pipe dream, shouldn’t Pennsylvania’s officials hold any successful receipt of dollars in escrow for the Pittsburgh-Harrisburg connection?