Pennsylvania's Fork in the Road on Transportation Spending

MARCH 14, 2012 | Commentary by JONATHAN HUMMA, NATHAN BENEFIELD

Fork in the Road on Transportation Spending

Motorists frustrated with high gas prices should be on the alert—your pain at the pump could get worse, and it has nothing to do with Middle East tensions or gas company profits. 

Sadly, many in the transportation industry and some lawmakers in Pennsylvania believe the only way to fix our roads is to increase gasoline taxes and charge drivers more in vehicle fees.  This low-octane loser is surely another wrong exit for taxpayers whose tank is already on empty.

To be certain, Pennsylvania's roads and bridges need repair.  But before taking one more dollar from working men and women through higher prices at the gas pump, lawmakers must do a better job spending the billions in taxes and fees they already get.

Gov. Corbett's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission proposed uncapping the oil franchise tax—bumping up gas prices by an estimated 10 cents or more per gallon—while also increasing vehicle and license fees.  Advocates for more transportation taxes and fees claim Pennsylvania, due to the lack of transportation funds, has the most structurally deficient bridges in the nation and some of the worst roads in the country.

While Pennsylvania's roads and bridges may indeed be poor, there is simply no shortage of transportation dollars.  U.S. Census and Federal Highway Administration data shows Pennsylvania spends more than $61,000 per highway mile, the seventh-highest road spending in the country.  State highway spending exceeds $588 per person, more than 41 other states.  And, state transportation spending has risen by more than 127 percent since 1995.  The bottom line: Funds are available, but they're not being spent well.

Pennsylvania's fiscal house is already facing a four-alarm fire with the state's spending crisis, and transportation must be considered in the context of all state spending.  Fixing roads and bridges is a fundamental government responsibility, but many other state programs are not. 

How can any legislator look taxpayers in the eye and demand they pay more at the pump each month to fix failing bridges, while state government hands out billions of dollars in subsidies for sport stadiums, corporate headquarters, and "green jobs"?  Redirecting state borrowing for corporate welfare to transportation would make better use of taxpayers' dollars. 

There are more ways to sure up funding for roads and bridges that won't empty the wallets of Pennsylvania drivers.  Currently, the cost of state-funded construction projects ballooned by tens of millions of dollars due to archaic mandates that force private employers to pay workers inflated wages, increasing labor costs upward of 30 percent for the same quality of work.  Redefining prevailing wage rates on state-funded construction projects can free up funding that could be used on other badly needed projects.

Moreover, transportation projects, like all government appropriations, must be prioritized.  Beautification, streetscaping, bike trails, parking garages, and new maintenance buildings might garner applause and photo ops for politicians, but they eat up funding that could be used for vital repairs.  Every dollar spent on unnecessary aesthetics is one dollar that cannot be spent fixing our more than 5,000 deficient bridges.

Furthermore, Pennsylvania has the opportunity to bring private sector expertise and financing to transportation.   Public-private partnerships, which the commission supported, are contractual agreements between a government agency and a private entity to build or manage a project.  These partnerships minimize costs and maximize accountability as private contractors put their own capital on the line while government retains ownership and oversight.

Lawmakers should also stop sending turnpike toll money to mass transit systems in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that most Pennsylvanians don't even use.  Mass transit must rely on user fees, not taxpayer subsidies, freeing up turnpike revenue to repair the roads motorists are paying to drive on.

Ultimately, gas prices have already taken a financial toll on Pennsylvania drivers.  Before taking more out of the wallets of drivers and taxpayers, lawmakers must prioritize the billions of dollars we spend today and protect our investment in transportation.  Otherwise, Pennsylvania taxpayers will be out of gas along with patience for business-as-usual overspending.

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Jonathan Humma is a research fellow and Nathan A. Benefield is director of policy analysis with the Commonwealth Foundation (www.commonwealthfoundation.org), Pennsylvania's free-market think tank.



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