Pennsylvania searches for transportation funding options

| 4/9/2010

The failed attempt to put tolls on Interstate 80 has left Pennsylvania state lawmakers scrambling to come up with money to pay for road and bridge work and aid to public transit. One leading lawmaker has stepped forward with various options.

The state was hopeful that their transportation budget would get a much-needed shot in the arm as they sought the green light from the feds to privatize I-80. Now that the Federal Highway Administration has rejected the application there is talk in Pennsylvania of a special session to generate revenue for transportation projects.

Rep. Rick Geist, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, wasted no time in touting his legislative package to help plug holes in a nearly $ billion-a-year shortfall in transportation funding for the state. Among his 11 proposed solutions are tolls on Interstate 95, public-private partnerships, and more local responsibility for transit projects.

Before Pennsylvania lawmakers start their scramble to plug gaping holes in the transportation budget, OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs Mike Joyce said it is vital that the state take more cautious steps to address infrastructure needs than what has been seen in the past.

“It starts with a responsible use of the resources they already have,” Joyce said. “But some of the options presented by Geist are a definite concern.”

Among the options that the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association is closely monitoring is legislation that would enable public-private partnerships. It would authorize the state to do business with private groups to help rebuild the state’s transportation infrastructure.

Geist contends the state cannot get out of its predicament without partnering with private groups.

“The cost for our whole state construction program is $1.8 billion. You realize we can’t do it,” Geist told Land Line Now on Sirius XM.

Geist has his eyes on more than a dozen roadways that could be dealt to private groups.

“There are about 14 projects that are considered low hanging fruit for a public-private partnership.”

If the lessons learned from the state’s effort to privatize I-80 tell lawmakers anything, it is that getting permission to proceed from the Federal Highway Administration will not be easy. Nevertheless, Geist wants to seek consent to do business with a private group to toll new lanes on I-95.

With the price tag at about $20 billion for complete rehabilitation of the 50 miles of I-95 in the state, Geist said the roadway is a perfect candidate for privatization.

OOIDA members are opposed to the pawnshop mentality of making existing infrastructure, such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike, available to the highest bidder. They are also against tolling existing capacity on roadways that include I-80 and I-95.

Geist said his I-95 proposal would put tolls only on new lanes.

“I-95 would still be a free road. Only the additional capacity would be tolled,” he said.

Other parts of Geist’s plan include phasing out expenditures for the motor license fund from the State Police budget, nearly doubling the local transit match to 25 percent, and doing a pilot project permitting PennDOT to contract out all maintenance work for a specific transportation district or an entire interstate.

He is also calling for a study of a tax on vehicle miles traveled. His resolution would urge the General Assembly to look into the concept of taxing drivers based on vehicle miles traveled.

Rendell said this week that people understand that if they are going to get better roads and bridges, they will have to foot the bill to make it happen.

Before Pennsylvania resorts to reaching deeper into the pockets of taxpayers, OOIDA’s Joyce said the state should first take steps to ensure the revenue already coming in is used for its intended purpose.

“It is vital that Pennsylvania take more cautious steps than in the past to address infrastructure needs. It starts with a responsible use of the resources they already have,” Joyce said.

While OOIDA has concerns with certain parts of Geist’s 11-point plan, there are some aspects that Joyce said moves Pennsylvania in the right direction.

“We emphatically disagree with several of these proposals; however, peppered in with his 11 points are some areas of reform we welcome,” Joyce said.

OOIDA is encouraged to see Geist’s commitment to wean the State Police off the motor license fund and an increase on the local match for transit.

There is urgency among lawmakers to get to work on solutions for the transportation funding crisis. A special session to address the issue is likely to begin soon. However, time is short for lawmakers to get something done before the July 1 budget deadline.

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

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor

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