Pennsylvania Senate poised to vote on privatization bill for roads, bridges

| 7/24/2009

A renewed effort at the Pennsylvania statehouse would allow for public-private partnerships to help get road and bridge work completed.

OOIDA says officials would be better served to focus on addressing wasteful and abusive spending by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Turnpike Authority. The Association has issued a Call to Action to its Pennsylvania members.

Making its way through the Pennsylvania Senate is a bill that would allow state government and local transportation authorities to partner with private groups to fund the design, construction, maintenance and management of state and local roads, bridges and more.

A nearly identical effort won support a year ago in the Senate only to be sidelined in a House committee. Sponsored by Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, this year’s effort – SB693 – like last year’s bill, would exclude handing over the Pennsylvania Turnpike, unless the Legislature approves it.

Advocates of public-private partnerships say mounting pressures to simply maintain existing transportation infrastructure is reason enough to innovate and adapt to overcome those challenges. Otherwise, they say that road and bridge projects will not receive adequate funding.

Mike Joyce, OOIDA’s director of legislative affairs, points out that Pennsylvania has one of the highest fuel tax rates in the nation but state officials have made poor decisions with the revenue.

“Pennsylvania in the past has squandered excess dollars they’ve had to address infrastructure needs, and they’ve raided highway dollars and redirected it toward mass transit,” Joyce told Land Line.

He added that the use of private investment cannot be totally rejected to build additional capacity into the highway system but said that protections for highway users must be put in place.

“The private sector is not going to equate to a significant amount of funding for highways. It’s going to be a very small percentage. But we are not going to support relinquishing control of current assets paid by truckers and highway users to the private sector so they can reap the benefits of tolling that infrastructure that’s already been paid for by those users,” Joyce said.

In an effort to soothe critics of plans to give up state assets for as long as 50 years, others point out that the legislation doesn’t call for handing over control of existing roads. They say that only parts of highways that are expanded or improved would be eligible for privatization.

Rafferty’s bill has advanced from committee to the Senate floor where it awaits a final vote. If approved there, it would move to the House for further consideration.

The Pennsylvania Transportation Commission would be responsible for oversight and administering public-transportation agreements. The group is composed of 15 members appointed by the governor.

The Transportation Commission would be authorized to solicit proposals to enter into private partnerships and to receive and consider unsolicited proposals.

Truck driver and OOIDA Life Member Mel Kaplan of Bushkill, PA, said the power that would be taken out of the hands of lawmakers and given to the commission should be a red flag to truckers and others in the state.

“This independent transportation commission is going to make decisions on things that should be in the hands of elected officials. There are definite questions about the constitutionality of such a maneuver,” Kaplan told Land Line.

Joyce said the lessons learned from a couple of years ago when lawmakers swiftly approved Act 44 are reason enough for OOIDA members from Pennsylvania to speak out on this legislation.

Act 44 allowed the state to toll Interstate 80 without first being granted permission from the federal government, and using proceeds from tolls on other roadways despite federal rules prohibiting such action.

“All members should be concerned with any legislation that is being considered by the Pennsylvania House and Senate that involves public-private partnerships and/or tolling because of the recklessness with which Act 44 was drafted, considered, voted and signed into law,” Joyce said.

Concern about entering into partnerships with private groups is not limited to Pennsylvania. Referring to Macquarie and the guaranteed toll increases as part of their lease agreements on various roadways, Joyce said every state should proceed cautiously with public-private partnerships.

“We’ve seen in this economy that the private sector isn’t always the best steward of the highway users’ toll dollars,” Joyce said.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Pennsylvania in 2009, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor

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