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Lowman S. Henry

Lowman S. Henry

Chairman & CEO
Lincoln Institute
of Public Opinion Research

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Town Hall Commentary

A Mid-Summer Night's Nightmare

by Lowman S. Henry
 

Governor Ed Rendell will leave office in January, but travelers on the Pennsylvania Turnpike will only just be starting to pay for the legacy of profligate spending he will leave behind.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission recently announced that tolls on America's first (and now most expensive) superhighway will rise by 10% effective January 2, 2011. Those of us who use E-Z Pass will see only a 3% increase. This is just the latest what is expected to be a series of fare increases.

The worst part about the ever-rising cost of driving on the turnpike is that revenue generated by the higher fares is not being reinvested in the highway itself. Instead some $450 million per year is being diverted to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to pay for the upkeep of other roads and bridges.

Regular fare hikes would be easier to accept if the money were being invested in the turnpike. Although some upgrades to the Pennsylvania Turnpike are already underway, many badly needed capital improvement projects remain unfunded. Not the least of these are replacing the turnpike's aging tunnels, the need to expand the entire highway to a minimum of six lanes — eight in higher traffic areas; and the continued upgrade of interchanges and service plazas. These projects languish as $450 million per year goes elsewhere.

How did we get into this mess? You can blame it on mass transit and urban politics. The Rendell Administration has poured billions into the bloated and inefficient mass transit systems in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. This has created a domino effect that deprived PennDOT of needed revenue, and led to the passage of Act 44 which set up the diversion of turnpike funds that have in turn prompted the recently announced toll increases.

Transportation funding has become an annual farce in Pennsylvania. The script is always the same: In the opening scene, the state's largest mass transit agencies — Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) in Philadelphia and the Port Authority Transit (PAT) in Pittsburgh — announce they have hefty budget deficits. In Scene 2, SEPTA and PAT threaten massive lay-offs and service cuts. Governor Ed Rendell rides to their rescue in Scene 3 by diverting federal highway funds to the mass transit agencies.

The curtain rises on Act II with the governor declaring the state's roads and bridges are crumbling. He declares the state to be in the clutches of a transportation crisis. This leads him to call in Scene 2 for increases in taxes and fees. Conflict arises in Scene 3 when the legislature refuses to raise taxes and fees, which are unpopular with their constituents. They point out the money isn't there to fix highways because the governor spent the federal highway money on mass transit. And that is where the drama suddenly ends: with no resolution and a guaranteed sequel next year.

Governor Rendell is once again planning to "flex" federal highway money to mass transit. And, of course, he is again calling for the legislature to raise taxes and fees. The governor has given the legislature options, magnanimously agreeing to sign into law whatever tax and fee hikes they might select from a menu of revenue enhancements he has presented to them.

At no point does Ed Rendell, or for that matter anybody else, begin to address the underlying cause of Pennsylvania's transportation dilemma: the fact billions are squandered by SEPTA and PAT due to inefficiencies, bloated bureaucracies and unreasonable labor union contracts.

Ed Rendell is captive of the Philadelphia political forces that prop up SEPTA. He would have taxpayers from across the state, and turnpike travelers, pay more rather than take the politically painful route of forcing SEPTA and PAT to clean up their acts.

And so the curtain will close on the Rendell Administration with no resolution to our transportation drama. Perhaps the next governor will come into office with a different script. In the meantime, our roads and bridges continue to deteriorate while turnpike tolls continue to rise. And that, will be Ed Rendell's enduring legacy to we the people of Penn's Woods.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.