by Lowman S. Henry | March 02, 2005

Rendell’s mass transit bailout is fiscal folly

When you get a report card, in addition to the letter grade, the teacher often adds additional comments like “participates in class,” “good student,” or “needs improvement.” Earlier this week the Washington D.C.-based Cato Institute gave Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell an “F” for his first two years in office. Under comments, they should add “lacks creativity.”

The governor pulled a rabbit out of his fiscal hat on Monday announcing an unexpected windfall of $666 million in federal transportation funding, $412 million of which he quickly earmarked to bail out the state’s bloated and financially failing mass transit agencies.

That move must have kept the governor and his policy people busy for, oh, five or ten minutes. Rather than dig in and address the root causes of the state’s mass transit woes, Rendell simply found money and threw it at the problem. Transit systems from SEPTA in the Philadelphia area to PAT in Pittsburgh were not held accountable for their abysmal fiscal management and inefficient operations. The governor simply bailed them out.

And worse, he stuck it to the rest of the state in the process. Millions more Pennsylvanians use roads and bridges than will ever set foot in a public transportation vehicle. Our roads and bridges are in deplorable, even unsafe, shape. They clearly need an infusion of cash. But after the transit agencies dipped their snouts in the trough, only $254 million of the federal transportation largess remains. Pennsylvania’s drivers will have to continue dealing with rickety bridges and pothole-riddled roadways, all so SEPTA and PAT can preserve their fiefdoms.

Governor Rendell rubbed salt into the wound by keeping the $666 million federal subsidy secret from legislative leaders. Those legislative leaders, mostly Republican, and the Democrat governor have been at odds in recent months precisely because the legislators have been demanding reforms at SEPTA, PAT and other transit agencies before bailing them out. They also demanded any funding formula be fair and equitable relative to providing adequate funding for the repair of roads and bridges.

But Rendell threw all that out the window, unilaterally pillaging the fund to feed the mass transit beast. Oh yes, he wants to establish a “reform commission” to look at the transit agencies. Anybody who has observed government for even the shortest amount of time knows “reform commissions” are where reform efforts are sent to die. The bottom line: Rendell isn’t going to deal with the systemic problems of the state’s mass transit agencies.

So there you have it: $412 million more of our tax dollars down the mass transit rat hole. Rendell claims he has “fixed” the problem through 2007 – coincidently after the next gubernatorial election. The governor’s transit funding move is a political and policy cop-out of the highest order. He should be held accountable for this trickery in 2006, not 2007 when taxpayers have no reason to believe there won’t be another funding “crisis,” followed by the flow of even more of our money to Pennsylvania’s failed efforts at providing mass transit.