Pennsylvania needs a transportation-funding fix | Editorial – lehighvalleylive.com


Pennsylvania pays a price for serving as the crossroads of the Northeast. A huge price.

The state’s gas tax is the highest in the nation, yet its roads and highways rank among the worst. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the Keystone State a D-plus grade for road quality and upkeep.

To make matters worse, last week we learned that funding for local and state roads is going to take a major hit. The Lehigh Valley stands to lose $380 million over the next 12 years, after its state transportation funding was cut from $1.1 billion to $747 million.

Remember the widening of Route 22, which started with the Lehigh River bridge expansion and two new interchanges in Allentown? It’s future is now being sorted out by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, and no one is sounding very optimistic.

How did we get to this point?

The short answer is we’re running out of money.

The long answer is tied up in federal and state formulas and priorities for transportation funding — but let’s have a go at it.

Pennsylvania gets a big chunk of its transportation money from the feds. The feds want more of that cash to go the 1,300 miles of interstate highways in Pennsylvania. That means less for state roads and bridges.

Congress and President Trump may agree on the need to invest in infrastructure, but the toxic political climate in Washington is polluting progress toward a bipartisan solution. Congress has been dealing with this need with short-term fixes. The 18.4-cent-per gallon federal gas tax has been unchanged since 1994. Unless something changes, federal transportation cuts will be the new norm.

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Pennsylvania’s situation is equally precarious. A gas tax increase passed in 2013 is falling short of revenue projections, partly because of more efficient vehicles, including hybrids and electric models. The state has been transferring hundreds of millions of dollars a year from its transportation budget to support the state police. In 2007, after a failed attempt to place tolls on Interstate 80, the Legislature began requiring the Pennsylvania Turnpike to transfer $450 million a year to PennDOT. The turnpike’s contribution is set to fall to $50 million a year in 2023.

And suffice it to say, increasing the gas tax is a third rail neither Republicans nor Democrats want to touch.

The cost of kicking the can down the road is coming due. The Lehigh Valley is experiencing growth in warehousing and distribution; housing development is trying to keep up with in-migration and an aging population.

Becky Bradley, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, warned last week that the Valley will have difficulty keeping up with its existing infrastructure, much less deal with new projects and higher vehicle capacity, in a era of budget cuts.

Congress and the state Legislature must find a more reliable source of funding than just fuel taxes. A lot of unpopular ideas will begin resurfacing — tolls, a tax based on mileage traveled instead of gas consumption, privatization plans.

Still, Pennsylvania can do two things fairly quickly:

Find a secure source of funding for state police, including charging towns for coverage.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s Restore Pennsylvania program would raise money for infrastructure through a tax on natural gas production. Much of that resource is leaving Pennsylvania, some for export, while Pennsylvania is inundated by interstate traffic that adds to wear-and-tear bills. Where’s the logic in that?

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It’s time to look at old ideas and new ideas. Put all of them on the table. Decide how to rebuild and expand a transportation network in decline, before our indecision crashes down on future generations.



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