Northeast governors slam federal transportation policy

| 8/13/2008

The governors of five states in the Northeast said this week that the Bush administration policy to toll and privatize infrastructure does little to solve their transportation problems.

The governors of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Connecticut and Delaware spoke about the woes of transportation funding on Monday, Aug. 11, during the Council of State Governments Eastern Regional Conference in Atlantic City, NJ. Topics included the federal and state role in transportation funding along with public-private partnerships.

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell have both proposed unpopular plans to lease public infrastructure in their states to investors.

Rendell announced in May that a consortium of private businesses from Spain and New York had bid $12.8 billion to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike for 75 years, but the lease deal stalled in a state legislative committee prior to the summer recess.

In 2007, Corzine discussed leasing the New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway and the state lottery to private investors, but the idea proved unpopular with state lawmakers.

Despite their previous proposals, on Monday both Corzine and Rendell criticized the federal government for shifting the burden of transportation funding to the states, forcing states to come up with unpopular proposals, including leasing infrastructure to investors or increasing tolls.

“There has been a shocking reduction in the federal government’s participation in providing for infrastructure, which was created under the philosophy that it was necessary for the strategic security of the country,” Corzine told reporters.

“More of those burdens have been turned to the state and local governments. I think that is not a prioritization that makes sense.”

Corzine used the conference to officially declare dead his proposal to increase tolls on New Jersey’s turnpikes by 800 percent during a 75-year period to bail New Jersey out of debt. Corzine has not yet announced his next move, but said all other options remained on the table including public-private partnerships.

He also said state spending and borrowing habits hold a share of the blame.

“It has limited our ability to address the problems that we have today, which is an aging infrastructure that puts people at risk,” Corzine said. “It is time for us to face up to that, and it will come at some cost.”

Rendell said the federal government is not likely to raise federal fuel taxes in the foreseeable future. Current tax rates are 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel.

The governors made note of the estimated $3 billion shortfall in the federal Highway Trust Fund that is to occur sometime in 2009, unless Congress takes action.

One of Rendell’s spokesmen in Pennsylvania referred Land Line to other media to find out what the governor said during the conference., an online publication of The Pew Research Center, paraphrased Rendell as saying public-private partnerships are politically unpopular and problematic.

That’s different from what Rendell said in May when touting the Pennsylvania Turnpike lease as a “win-win” situation.

Rendell’s reported remarks on Monday also contradict his pledged support for the conversion of Interstate 80 into a toll road.

Rendell sent a letter in July to U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters urging “prompt, favorable consideration” for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s application to toll I-80.

Rendell, Corzine and the other governors, Jim Douglas of Vermont, M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut, and Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware, said proposals to fix transportation problems will not be easy to come by and may be unpopular. They also said options including public-private partnerships remain on the table.

Rendell and Corzine said they support the creation of a federal infrastructure bank that would finance the private sector to build and maintain infrastructure.

– By David Tanner, staff writer