The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) continues its push for federal approval to toll Interstate-80, claiming that without it bridges will collapse, highways will crumble, and dogs and cats will start living together. But the proposal represents little more than a tax on I-80 drivers, as 40% of the toll revenue would be diverted to other projects, and it fails to address unnecessary transportation spending.
In 2007, the Pennsylvania legislature passed Act 44, giving the PTC power to raise Turnpike tolls, issue billions of dollars in bonded debt, and toll I-80. The plan provides new funds for highway projects and mass transit agencies. However, the proposal to toll I-80 has twice been rejected by the federal government, for failing to meet the requirements for tolling a free road.
Despite the demand for tolling, there are alternatives that would free up public and private dollars to be spent appropriately on transportation infrastructure.
1. Repeal prevailing wage laws. Prevailing wage laws drive up the cost of road construction. State-mandated wages for government projects are 40% higher, on average, than the private sector pays for the same work. Repealing these laws, and paying market wages, would free up hundred of millions, if not billions of dollars, for highway construction and repair.
2. Stop redirecting highway and bridge money to other purposes. While the transportation community bemoans the need for additional funding, citing structurally deficient bridges and dilapidated roads, hundreds of millions of dollars each year are redirected from road maintenance to bike trails, beautification projects, and new roads named for politicians. Just recently, Rendell gave $7 million from a mysterious pot of money in the Department of Transportation to SEPTA workers for bonuses, rewarding them for striking on Election Day. Furthermore, Act 44 promises $250 million annually for mass transit even if I-80 isn’t tolled-and a 10-year average of $414 million to transit agencies if it is. These toll dollars should not be used to subsidize inefficient transit agencies, but dedicated to bridges and highways-specifically those used by drivers on toll roads.
3. Enable public-private partnerships. Public-private partnerships (P3s) are the emerging paradigm in transportation funding. While the failed Turnpike lease received the bulk of media attention, P3s are far more expansive than that. Using P3s on new construction-e.g., express lanes, high occupancy lanes, highways, and bridges-are much less controversial, and could happen now. Len Gilroy of the Reason Foundation outlined the potential for P3s in Pennsylvania during recent testimony to the Pennsylvania House Republican Policy Committee, noting the revenue P3s have generated in Texas, California, Georgia, Florida and Virginia.
4. Eliminate the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC). Instead of giving the Turnpike Commission control over I-80, we should eliminate what is among the most corrupt and inefficient agencies in the country. While the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) is no bastion of efficiency, it employs one-fourteenth the number of workers per mile (in fact, the PTC has more managers per mile than PennDOT has total workers per mile). Rolling the Turnpike Commission into PennDOT and eliminating an unnecessary bureaucracy would offer substantial savings in transportation spending, an effort former Gov. Dick Thornburgh has championed.
5. Privatize rest stops. While the state spends taxpayer dollars to manage highway rest stops, it could make money by privatizing them and leasing the property to restaurants and service stations. While service plazas can be found along the Turnpike, federal law prohibits them along freeways. However, as Ronald Utt points out in a recent Heritage Foundation paper, this law was intended to protect existing businesses in the 1950s (most of which no longer exist), and there is little will to enforce it. In fact, Pennsylvania already has privatized some rest stops, but there is opportunity to do much more-for instance, along I-80.
The idea that we simply need to spend more money on transportation-and raise taxes or tolls to do so-is misguided. Until the state starts spending current tax and toll dollars efficiently and capitalizes on opportunities for private funding, lawmakers have no reason to ask taxpayers and drivers for more revenue.
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Nathan A. Benefield is Director of Policy Research with the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.