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This time, we have the opportunity to get it right

April 22, 2010
By Jason Wagner

Rejection of the Interstate 80 tolling proposal by the Federal Highway Administration may turn out to be a blessing, but not for the reasons that tolling opponents may think.

At best, the tolling plan was another band-aid on a problem that has festered for decades.  Each time transportation funding has reached crisis proportions, Pennsylvania’s policymakers have charged in and applied a temporary solution at the last moment.

News accounts of the tolling plan’s rejection have described the decision as “leaving Pennsylvania with a $472 million problem,” referring to the annual revenue that tolling would have produced. 

In truth, it’s a $2 billion problem.  That is the level of additional annual revenue needed to bring the existing transportation system up to an acceptable standard, including capacity expansion that will help relieve the congestion that stifles economic recovery and diminishes the opportunity for future prosperity.

The tolling plan was another in a series of piecemeal actions, which competed for a time with the idea of leasing the Turnpike, which was another piecemeal solution.  Neither, individually or together, would have solved the problem.

The continuing harangue over the tolling plan versus the Turnpike lease – it does not deserve to be labeled a “debate” – served only to pit regions and motorist classifications against one another and detracted from having the type of constructive dialog required to develop consensus for a comprehensive solution.

Governor Rendell has called for a special session of the General Assembly to address the shortfall left by the denial of tolling.  Now that we are back to Square One, we should seize the opportunity to get it right. 

If the special session cannot produce a comprehensive solution, then it should be left for the next administration and be front and center in this year’s gubernatorial campaign.

The blueprint for what needs to happen was embodied in the Pennsylvania Economy League’s transportation study of 2006, which concluded that a comprehensive solution would require a combination of increased user fees and taxes, prudent use of debt, public-private partnerships and the ability to raise revenue locally.

To turn this into a constructive exercise, we must stop talking about how not to fund transportation infrastructure.  We must be honest about the extent of the problem and set realistic expectations about various aspects of a comprehensive solution. 

Public private partnerships, for example, certainly should be part of the solution.  However, they have proven valuable for only a very small number of projects throughout the country and will not fund entire transportation systems, as some would have you believe.

This problem cannot be solved simply by “improving efficiency” or “reprioritizing government spending.”  Even if it were possible to cut the state welfare budget, it would not be enough to fund transportation.  

Repealing prevailing wage requirements, as has been suggested in some quarters, would do little to solve the problem.  When federal funds are involved – as is the case with the vast majority of all highway projects – federal rules governing prevailing wage requirements apply.

In the absence of a comprehensive solution, transportation funding will be thrust near the top of the agenda in the upcoming campaigns for governor, General Assembly, Congress and the U.S. Senate.  Given the importance of transportation to our future prosperity and quality of life, this is not a bad thing.

We would have the opportunity to ask all political candidates two simple questions: 1) how much should we be spending to assure that we have a sound transportation system, and 2) how, specifically, do you propose to generate the revenue to pay for it?

Pennsylvania’s economic recovery, as well as our future prosperity, depends on the answers.  If the special session cannot produce a comprehensive solution, let’s see how those who seek to represent us propose to address the problem, and seek a long-term solution after the first of the year.

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Jason Wagner is managing director of the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association.  To learn more about PHIA’s vision for a 21st Century transportation system, click here.

One Comment on this post.

  1. Allison Kelsey
    April 15, 2010 at 11:50 am
  2. Thank you for recognizing our study. Here’s a link to the full report for anyone who’d like to read it:
    http://www.issuespa.net/publications/17673/.
    Allison Kelsey, Dir. Communications, Economy League of Greater Philadelphia

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