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State highway funding: time for new people, ideas

NOW THAT THE controversial bid to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike for $12.8 billion has been taken off the table, Harrisburg officials need to put both hands on the wheel and get back to work on more prudent strategies for maintaining the state’s highways, bridges and mass transit.

Gov. Ed Rendell and state lawmakers need to devote their full attention to tolling Interstate 80, or other measures – including raising the gas tax and levying similar transportation-related fees.

Since the patronage-rich Turnpike Commission is going to be around awhile, it must be house-cleaned – or abolished. Replacing the chairman, Mitchell Rubin, certainly would signal a new day.

While not accused of any wrongdoing, Rubin was singled out by federal prosecutors for receiving $150,000 in contracts requiring “little or no Senate work” from state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, D-Philadelphia. The senator faces a corruption trial along with Rubin’s wife, a former aide.

On the turnpike deal, the decision Tuesday by the Spanish-U.S. consortium seeking the lease to withdraw its $12.8 billion was useful, if only a formality. Were enough lawmakers to drop their guard and warm to this deal, the expiring bid would be revived quicker than a sports car zipping through an E-ZPass lane.

But lawmakers’ opposition to the lease was well-founded, given all the unknowns.

Was the state getting a fair return for forking over 75 years in tolls to a private firm? How could Harrisburg officials ensure they would monitor the toll-road operator, given a capital awash in sky’s-the-limit campaign donations and spending by lobbyists?

In fact, the highway and transit funding plan mapped out in mid-2007 by Rendell and the legislature under Act 44 remains the right route, even with detours.

With the recent rejection of the I-80 toll plan by federal officials, the first chore is to reshape the state’s application to comply with Federal Highway Administration rules. That means pledging I-80 toll funds to that interstate’s upkeep, and thereby freeing up other state funds for critical road maintenance.

The Wall Street meltdown makes the case even stronger for letting states expand tolling, since the slowing economy is squeezing other revenues. The added plus with the I-80 plan is that tolls would be spaced widely so that local motorists would continue to travel toll-free.

The I-80 toll plan would spin off $450 million a year for roads and transit, but the tolls are not the only means to raise those funds – providing lawmakers can muster political courage. Upping the gas tax a few cents a gallon plus other targeted fee increases would do the trick.

With pump prices yo-yoing by more than that from week to week, it’s ludicrous to suggest that taxpayers would revolt over such tax hikes devoted to critical infrastructure.

So legislative leaders – they’re supposed to lead, right? – need to stop blithely dismissing gas-tax and fee increases as the fall-back strategy to fund roads and transit.

The Wall Street meltdown makes the case even stronger for letting states expand

tolling, since the slowing

economy is squeezing other revenues.

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