The ‘public’ as an afterthought in ‘public policy’

The ‘public’ as an afterthought in ‘public policy’

Consider it a lesson in public policy humility.

Commonwealth Court has tapped – but not necessarily slammed – the brakes on a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation plan to toll select interstate bridges to pay for their rehabilitation and ancillary upgrades.

The I-79 bridge at the Bridgeville interchange is one of nine to be replaced by a private contractor, with tolls lasting three decades (supposedly) to cover the updates and long-term maintenance.

But, based on a lawsuit filed by a group of plaintiffs, a Commonwealth Court judge has issued an injunction on moving forward until the full court can hear the case.

This particular lawsuit targeted the tolling of an Interstate 83 bridge in Cumberland County but the injunction is applicable to all spans to be tolled. There’s another court challenge to the Bridgeville project.

At the crux of the first case is if PennDOT exceeded, if not free-lanced, its legislative warrant to proceed. The plaintiffs in the Cumberland case argue that the legislatively created Public-Private Partnership Transportation Board gave PennDOT virtually carte blanche power to choose the bridge projects and without first notifying, and discussing with, local communities.

At least for now, Judge Ellen Ceisler agrees. Not only did the partnership board’s tolling concept lack “sufficient specificity,” because of that lapse, the board could not, as it was required to do, consult with affected municipalities before approving the concept.

As the judge put it: “The board essentially approved a massive multibillion-dollar initiative on an admittedly meager record … .”

And then there’s this previously undisclosed rotten nugget in the deal, as divulged to the Post-Gazette by state Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-South Fayette:

The foreign company with which PennDOT had chosen to partner for these projects – but with whom no contract has yet been signed – would be paid “millions of dollars even if [the contract was] canceled due to a court ruling,” Ortitay says.

“PennDOT has shown that it will steamroll the process and recklessly spend taxpayer dollars for no reason,” he alleges.

That’s certainly not sound public policy. And that’s certainly not in the interest of good governance. Still, PennDOT already has let other contracts related to the bridge-tolling plan. All that now is on hold pending the full court’s hearing of the case.

Indeed, these bridges are in need of work. Indeed, public-private partnerships of this type are innovative, have worked elsewhere and very well could be the answer in Pennsylvania. And, just as indeed, there remain credible questions surrounding such tolling that require thorough vetting.

But these remain public projects to be paid for with public money. Anything that discounts the public only fuels distrust that respective municipalities’ concerns — including toll-avoidance by using local streets – are being discounted or ignored outright.

Driving over those you’re supposedly trying to help have safe bridges to drive on is the furthest thing from sound transportation policy.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).