There is an old axiom that politics is the art of the possible. Bipartisan leadership in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and from Gov. Tom Corbett in approving a new five-year transportation investment law is the latest example of what can be done when elected leaders come together in the spirit of compromise to work in the best interests of the public. It’s a message that shouldn’t be lost on politicians in the nation’s capital.
Notwithstanding the usual rhetoric circulating in some media outlets from ideological groups opposed to any new transportation funding, it’s important for residents of Pennsylvania to understand what the new law really is: a road to a better future.
Before the law was signed, Pennsylvania was collecting less tax revenue per mile driven that at any time in history, according to a Transportation Funding Advisory Commission report released in 2011. When adjusted for inflation, the gas tax paid by the average driver has decreased by more than half over the past 40 years, and it was scheduled to drop in half again by 2020. Add it up and funding for roads and bridges was slated to fall by an average of 25 percent over the next five years.
The law changes all of that by providing sustained funding to make urgently need improvements to crumbling roads, bridges and transit systems. Its targeted investments will also help save lives, reduce traffic congestion and wasted fuel, and improve personal mobility and the efficiency of moving goods.
Earlier this year, an American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s Foundation report calculated the impacts of a multiyear $2.5 billion increase in transportation funding — quite similar to the approximately $2.3 billion over five years in the new law. We estimated such an investment would increase commonwealth economic output by $6.5 billion annually and create 50,000 good-paying jobs in the construction and retail industries.
In Allegheny County, the foundation report noted, 36 percent of the bridges have been rated either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete” by the Federal Highway Administration. The county’s key industries of tourism, agriculture, retail and manufacturing all depend on a safe and reliable system of roads and bridges. The new law will go a long way toward helping the county maintain such a system.
The law also was key to putting the state on better fiscal ground so much so that Moody’s credit rating service marked the move as a “credit positive.” This gives the state more security that bonds floated for projects will get better interest rates and thereby save taxpayers money.
Unfortunately, at the federal level there has been little progress in finding a similar solution for the Highway Trust Fund, the source of about half of national highway, transit and bridge capital investments. Through the federal highway program, Pennsylvania receives about $1.6 billion annually. If Congress and the president fail to take action by Oct. 1, no money will be available for new projects in fiscal year 2015.
To prevent this, Congress must fix the Highway Trust Fund in early 2014. If done right and in a similar bipartisan manner as the governor and Legislature of Pennsylvania achieved, a significant boost in transportation investment could help strengthen the U.S. economy, enhance the competitiveness of U.S. companies, create thousands of American jobs, improve transportation safety and keep the motoring public moving.
Alison Premo Black is chief economist of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (www.artba.org).