Pa. transportation: here’s how we move forward

June 18, 2010

This post is a reprint of the “As I See It” column by Representatives Markosek and Geist.  It was published in the Harrisburg Patriot News on June 18, 2010. 

Over the past three weeks, we, as chairmen of the state House Transportation Committee, have conducted seven public hearings across Pennsylvania focusing on the staggering shortfall in funding for the commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure.

Joined by the House Republican and Democratic policy committees, we heard testimony from PennDOT district executives, planning organizations, mass-transit officials, construction industry professionals, chambers of commerce, county commissioners and advocacy coalitions.

From Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, there has been a resounding refrain: It’s time to invest in infrastructure, and we will support the tough decisions that must be made to sufficiently fund a safe and efficient transportation system.

In other words, do something. Now.

We couldn’t agree more.

Both of us have served on the House Transportation Committee for more than 20 years, and we can state unequivocally that Pennsylvania has underfunded its transportation infrastructure for far too long. We cannot afford to ignore this problem any longer.

In May, the state Transportation Advisory Committee report estimated an additional $3.5 billion a year is needed to meet all existing and immediate transportation infrastructure needs. That’s double the estimated annual deficit calculated in 2006 by the governor’s Transportation Funding and Reform Commission.

Just how dire is the situation? Consider:

  • Pennsylvania has 5,646 structurally deficient state-owned bridges, more than any state in the nation. That doesn’t include the 6,000-plus locally owned bridges that are equally poor in condition and need attention.
  • 7,000 miles, or about 18 percent, of state roads are listed in very poor condition. The mileage of local roads in poor condition likely exceeds that number.
  • Effective July 1, overall transportation funding from Act 44 drops from $900 million a year to a fixed $450 million a year as a result of the federal government denying Pennsylvania’s proposal to toll Interstate 80.

Plugging that $450 million hole would only provide a temporary fix. It is time for Pennsylvania to find a long-term, comprehensive solution to our problems.

We wholeheartedly endorse Gov. Rendell’s recent convening of a special legislative session on transportation funding because it presents a rare window of opportunity to deal with this problem now, in this calendar year, before the current general session expires.

As committee chairmen, we are taking a bipartisan approach to what is a nonpartisan issue. Transportation transcends politics. It affects every Pennsylvanian’s daily life. Pennsylvania’s economy is dependent on a reliable transportation infrastructure.

So how does Pennsylvania pay for the massive job that needs to be done? To answer that critical question, the Legislature will have to act on some or all of the revenue-raising options currently on the table. Those options include: 

  1. Uncapping or adjusting the Oil Company Franchise Tax, artificially capped in 1983, which would allow the rate to adjust as market conditions change.
  2. Increasing the gas tax, which has not been addressed for 13 years.
  3. Raising the annual vehicle registration fee, currently one of the lowest in the nation.
  4. Enabling Pennsylvania to enter into public-private partnerships, in which the private sector teams with government to help rebuild the infrastructure.
  5. Giving local governments revenue-raising options to support mass transit or road and bridge projects.

Considerable political will is necessary to enact measures like these in a tough economic climate and an even tougher political climate. But, as we have heard, doing nothing is not an option. Ignoring the problem compromises the safety of Pennsylvanians, hinders the commonwealth’s economy and passes off the problem to future generations.

Pennsylvanians must realize there is an extra cost to bear in order to maintain and improve the commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure. It’s the price you pay to keep moving ahead.

State Rep. Joseph Markosek, D-Allegheny, is chairman of the state House Transportation Committee. State Rep. Rick Geist, R-Blair, is minority chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

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