by Lowman S. Henry | November 10, 2003

Rendell Administration diverts highway funding to public transit money pit

It’s highway robbery, Pennsylvania style.

Amid growing talk about the need for yet another gasoline tax increase to help rebuild Pennsylvania’s crumbling highway and bridge system, the Rendell Administration has hijacked $25 million in federal highway funding to prop up the ever-failing public transit systems in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Public transportation systems are notorious for their ability to consume vast quantities of tax money. Not a single such system has ever been built that has come close to covering its own operating costs – and that doesn’t even begin to factor in construction costs. In Pennsylvania, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA); and Port Authority Transit (PAT) in the Pittsburgh, siphon huge quantities from the state treasury every year to just barely stay afloat.

There are constant political, administrative, and financial fights over both SEPTA and PAT. At the same time, service is spotty, schedules are inconvenient for riders, and unions pillage the authorities every time a contract is up for renewal. As a result, most people will not ride the buses, subways, and trains, opting instead for the convenience and dependability of their own cars.

Despite the public’s demonstrated preference for highways, professional planners persist with Soviet-style zeal in pushing for more funding, expanded and even new mass transit systems. In the meantime our roads and bridges – the system people actually use – is falling into disrepair.

According to the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association, over 6,000 miles of Pennsylvania highways need to be resurfaced, and one in every four bridges needs repair or replacement. The cost of upgrading bridges alone is estimated at $4.9 billion. There are over $10 billion in unfunded highway and bridge construction projects currently on the books in Pennsylvania.

Against this backdrop the Rendell Administration has stuck it to motorists by raiding federal highway funding to feed the mass transit beasts in Philly and Pittsburgh. Using a tactic know as “flexing,” $25 million in federal highway funding has been diverted to SEPTA and PAT. This sort of thing has been done in the past, but only to fund capital construction projects. For the first time ever, federal highway money has been flexed to mass transit to cover operating losses.

Governor Rendell had accomplices in this heist. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission gave its approval for shifting $15 million earmarked for reconstruction of Route 309 in Montgomery County to SEPTA, while Allegheny County officials approved the moving of $10 million earmarked for improving Interstate 79 to PAT.

The governor and the planning agencies are playing Big Brother. They have shown an obvious preference for getting people out of their cars and into mass transit – something people simply don’t want to do. Their transit systems are inept and failing. The recent raid on highway funds to cover clearly excessive mass transit operating losses sets a dangerous precedent.

It is time for policy makers from the governor on down to realize Pennsylvania’s experiment with government-directed mass transit systems has been a dismal failure. It is time they focused their efforts on coming to grips with the Keystone state’s crumbling highway infrastructure.