Times Chronicle & Public Spirit

Transporta­tion funding panel is a chance to stop taking taxpayers for a ride

- Lowman Henry Lowman S. Henry is chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal and American Radio Journal. His email address is lhenry@lincolnins­titute.org

It is a law of nature that bureaucrac­ies and government agencies always crave a larger share of the public treasury. In Pennsylvan­ia, the undisputed leader of the pack is the public education establishm­ent which has a voracious and insatiable appetite for taxpayer dollars.

A close second is the Pennsylvan­ia Department of Transporta­tion which is always clamoring for more money — much more money.

PennDOT kicked up the most recent funding controvers­y by floating a plan to place tolls on several major bridges in the commonweal­th, supposedly to maintain and upgrade the structures. Predictabl­y, the idea has been met with stiff opposition from commuters and the potentiall­y affected industries.

Gov. Tom Wolf has never met a tax he does not like — until now. He is empaneling a special commission to develop a plan to replace the state’s gasoline tax with a new funding scheme. The increased fuel efficiency of gas-powered vehicles coupled with the trendy push for electric cars threatens to drive gas tax revenue downward. The goal of the commission, of course, is to increase the flow of funding into PennDOT’s coffers.

At 58.1 cents per gallon, Pennsylvan­ia’s gas tax is the secondhigh­est in the nation only behind California. Just a few years ago, in 2013, higher taxes were levied on producers the practical impact of which was to add about 30 cents per gallon to the price of gasoline for a cumulative hit of over $2 billion per year to motorists. Now, the agency is claiming it needs an additional $7 billion per year to maintain the state’s roads and bridges.

For decades successive governors and legislatur­es have slapped Band-Aids on Pennsylvan­ia’s transporta­tion funding formula. That approach has had a particular­ly negative effect on the Pennsylvan­ia Turnpike, which is a separate state agency. In 2007, a law went into effect that has siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars from Turnpike coffers into PennDOT, some of which the commission has had to borrow. That, in turn, has triggered steep annual increases in turnpike tolls, more than doubling fares over that time frame.

The labyrinth that is state transporta­tion funding is further complicate­d by the continued financial drain caused by public transporta­tion. Both PennDOT and a portion of those turnpike dollars subsidize public transit systems. The biggest, the Southeaste­rn Pennsylvan­ia Transporta­tion Authority in the Philadelph­ia region and Port Authority Transit in Pittsburgh are bloated, inefficien­t and inept bureaucrac­ies that have been resistant to reform due to union-driven political pressures.

Against this backdrop, Gov. Wolf has ordered the establishm­ent of a special commission to develop recommenda­tions for changes to the current system of transporta­tion funding. In a departure from his usual go-it-alone approach to governing, Wolf seeks to include legislator­s and transporta­tion industry representa­tives on the commission.

This, however, should be viewed with great suspicion. The commission’s charge is to find a way to eliminate the gas tax and find funding alternativ­es with the goal of adding billions of dollars to the transporta­tion budget. It is indeed time for the developmen­t of a comprehens­ive restructur­ing of transporta­tion funding. But just throwing more money into the pot will not solve the problem.

Also needed is a streamlini­ng and restructur­ing of the entire array of transporta­tion entities operating in the state beginning with the Department of Transporta­tion and the Pennsylvan­ia Turnpike Commission and extending to the regional public transporta­tion agencies. The system is beset with administra­tive bloat, funding inequities, and antiquated labor contracts.

There is universal agreement that roads and bridges, public transit, railroads, and airports are vitally important to the economic vibrancy of Penn’s Woods. Rather than take the politicall­y difficult, but necessary step of developing the comprehens­ive plan needed to knit all the above together, state policymake­rs have taken the easy way out by just throwing money at whatever crisis happens to develop.

This is a unique opportunit­y to systematic­ally address Pennsylvan­ia’s transporta­tion needs. Hopefully, the governor’s commission doesn’t turn into yet another way to simply suck more money out of taxpayers’ wallets, but rather takes the first steps toward developing a sustainabl­e transporta­tion system.

 ?? Lowman S. Henry Columnist ??
Lowman S. Henry Columnist

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