2011 in review: Still no transportation funding

December 21, 2011

If your holiday wish is to see some action on the transportation funding issue, I’m afraid you should expect coal under your tree this year. Below is commentary provided by PHIA on the transportation funding effort as 2011 closes with an industry facing an uncertain future.

Veterans of the transportation construction industry are not exaggerating when they tell you that efforts to establish steady, sustainable, comprehensive funding sources for highways and public transit have been underway for decades.

A year ago, there were reasons for great optimism that 2011 was shaping up to be the year that a comprehensive funding solution, finally, could occur:

  • Pennsylvania elected a pro-business governor who seemed to understand the need, and expressed support, for a sound transportation system, and he appointed a PennDOT secretary from the industry whose knowledge and understanding of the problems is unsurpassed.
  • There was growing, bipartisan agreement in the General Assembly that the funding issue needed to be addressed.
  • The public’s support for a funding solution that would improve safety and relieve congestion was growing. Polling showed that a majority of voters were willing to make a modest investment in improving the transportation and believed that transportation funding was the most important issue facing Pennsylvania.
  • There was a strong need to stimulate the economy by creating jobs, and a robust economic study showed that not only would a well funded transportation do that, the majority of the jobs created would be in industries other than construction.
  • A coalition of transportation system advocates, the Keystone Transportation Funding Coalition, came together in support, simply, for a comprehensive transportation funding solution. The coalition transcended ideological, political, geographical and socioeconomic boundaries.
  • Newspaper editorials across the Commonwealth expressed nearly universal, strong support for a transportation funding solution.
  • The construction industry itself stepped up and marshaled substantial resources to mount an education campaign to support a funding solution.

When Governor Corbett appointed a funding advisory commission and charged it with crafting a funding solution, and left nearly every option on the table except increasing the cents-per-gallon flat gas tax, optimism peaked. The commission delivered its recommendations on Aug. 1, and Corbett said he would review the report and announce which recommendations he would endorse.

The fall legislative session came and went without a signal from the governor. Sen. Jake Corman, a Centre County Republican, finally agreed to introduce legislation that mirrored the funding commission’s recommendations.

Administration officials assured transportation funding proponents that the governor supports a funding solution, but did not wish to distract legislators from focusing on several other public policy initiatives, such as school vouchers, privatization of liquor stores and the establishment of Marcellus Shale fees.

The governor and the General Assembly left the transportation funding issue for 2012, an election year for all House members and half of the Senate. Most recently, the word from the administration was that transportation funding would be considered as part of the budget process and would become a featured component in a planned job-creation initiative.

“I cannot imagine a more favorable environment in which to address this issue than the one we’ve had in place in 2011,” said Robert Latham of Associated Pennsylvania Constructors. “Nevertheless, our job is to sustain that favorable environment so that policymakers have a level of comfort that the public is on board and does, in fact, want a safer, less congested transportation system in Pennsylvania.”

PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch has warned that without a funding solution, the state is facing a plethora of additional weight-restricted and/or closed bridges, adding to the traffic congestion that has already affected the more populous areas of the state.

The Post-Gazette reported recently that Pittsburgh’s Port Authority has begun planning for a 35 percent reduction in service hours that will come next fall if Gov. Tom Corbett and the General Assembly fail to act on a statewide transportation funding shortfall. While Pittsburgh’s situation is particularly dire, public transit systems across the state are facing similar challenges.

Meanwhile, it is clear that there is no consensus in Congress regarding a new multi-year transportation funding package to replace the one that expired two years ago.

“It’s long past time that we get moving on transportation funding,” Latham said. “Are our elected officials preparing to continue to ignore this issue while conditions deteriorate?”

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