Would a private company agree to build new express lanes along the traffic-choked Parkway East in exchange for the right to collect tolls from the drivers who use them?
State Rep. Rick Geist, outgoing chair of the House Transportation Committee, was unequivocal: "I know it's going to happen."
Mr. Geist, Gov. Tom Corbett and other officials gathered in New Kensington on Wednesday for a ceremonial signing of House Bill 3, which authorizes public-private partnerships to improve transportation facilities. The governor actually signed the bill into law in July.
Those in attendance said the law will stimulate private investment in public highways, bridges and other facilities, advancing projects that governments can't afford on their own.
"We really don't know exactly where an increase in public-private partnerships will lead, but we know that status quo hasn't been working," Mr. Corbett said. "Pennsylvania annually comes up short in the amount of money needed for our transportation system. The old models for funding transportation, notably the motor fuels tax, have not delivered everything we needed."
A state advisory commission in 2010 estimated that state spending was $3.5 billion per year below the level needed to bring transportation infrastructure to good repair.
With Pennsylvania leading the nation in deficient bridges and seeing its overall road quality deteriorate, there is little money to build new highway capacity.
Mr. Geist said he already has been approached by engineering companies that have concepts for new lanes on the parkway, including stacking them on overpasses or opening the Squirrel Hill Tunnels to the sky.
"I think you're going to see some amazing things happen. I would think the Parkway East was one of the early candidates (for a partnership)," he said.
State Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said he thinks someone will propose a public-private partnership to add lanes on the parkway because of the heavy traffic volume and potential to generate toll revenue. The question, he said, is how much public subsidy the private developer would demand.
"Right now, every dollar I have is programmed to bare-bones maintenance," he said.
Several officials pointed to the $1.3 billion expansion of the Capital Beltway in Virginia as an example of the potential of public-private partnerships. A private company, using some public financing, is adding two E-ZPass express lanes in both directions for 14 miles, a mammoth undertaking that included replacing more than 50 bridges and modifying 12 interchanges.
Drivers who don't want to sit in the beltway's traffic jams will be able to move to the express lanes and pay tolls that vary based on traffic volume -- higher prices during peak periods to keep the express lanes flowing.
Mr. Geist said other regional possibilities for partnerships that have been pitched to him include a private bridge improving access between the Pitcairn Railroad Yards and the Pennsylvania Turnpike and reconstruction of deteriorated locks and dams on the Allegheny River.
He also has been approached about a combined rail-coal-shale gas project but said he could not provide details because he signed a confidentiality agreement.
"There are a lot of people out there right now collectively putting their heads together, and the money pools that are available for investment in Pennsylvania are huge," he said.
Under the law, private investors can pitch their ideas to a new seven-member Public Private Transportation Partnership Board, chaired by Mr. Schoch and made up of other gubernatorial and legislative appointees.
"On the other hand, if the state comes up with an idea where private-sector operation makes more sense, we can ask for proposals (from private interests)," Mr. Corbett said.
Mr. Corbett said 33 other states have laws authorizing the partnerships, called P3s.
"Some legislation requires imagination, not just when we write it, but after it is enacted," he said. "House Bill 3 is that kind of law."
Jon Schmitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1868.