John Baer: Government's on break ... & broken

Posted: April 11, 2012

YOUR STATE Legislature's on break. Your Congress is on break. And your roads and bridges are about to break.

If this sounds familiar, you've been paying attention.

Your "full-time" Legislature is on Easter break this week, off for who-knows-what next week and off for primary elections the week after that.

Your Congress has the week off because, you know, like everybody else, whenever there's a holiday such as Easter or Passover, you take a whole week off.

But if you're thinking, aha, maybe that's why nothing gets done, you'd be wrong.

Nothing gets done because the political world's torn in two, mired in ideological battles, unwilling or unable to do basic stuff.

Worse, lawmakers appear not to care, banking on voters queuing up like sheep each Election Day to return them to office.

Current polls put the Legislature's approval rating at 29 percent, Congress' at 12, so don't forget to get out there and vote for incumbents on April 24.

How else to express gratitude for the fine shape of - to take just one example - roads, bridges and mass transit?

If you missed it, Congress recently refused to deal with transportation funding, instead passing a 90-day extension of current levels, the ninth since 2009.

This comes at the start of the construction season for Northeastern states, a time when federal funds could spur jobs.

In Harrisburg, despite years of reports and commissions urging repair of the nation's largest collection of "structurally deficient" bridges and enough bad roadway to cross the country more than a couple of times, the Legislature's turned to prayer, naming 2012 "The Year of the Bible."

I suggest entreating whatever deity does it for you when approaching any of our 5,000-plus "structurally deficient" bridges because "structurally deficient" is engineer talk for "cross your heart and pray it don't collapse."

Gov. Corbett, who calls transportation issues "critical," is sitting on his own advisers' recommendations to, among other things, increase license and registration fees and feed mass transit a small dedicated tax on oil companies.

The recommendations came last August.

This is not new. Back in '06, Gov. Ed Rendell's transportation commission also called for quick action, and since then efforts to secure highway dollars by leasing the turnpike and tolling Interstate 80 have failed.

Meanwhile, the state's needed-repairs price is $3.5 billion and climbing.

No one denies the need. But ideology is stopping action.

Many conservatives contend that money's there if properly prioritized: Stop spending on stuff used by some, such as mass transit, bike trails and sports stadiums; spend on stuff used by most, such as roads and bridges.

Many liberals want to "invest" new dollars from taxes or fees to create jobs to fix infrastructure.

And Corbett, of course, has pledged not to raise taxes or fees.

The state House just passed a measure joining 32 other states allowing "public-private partnerships" to work on roads and bridges. It's expected to pass the Senate and be signed into law.

But it's not a fix; it's a tool.

It could lead to private construction and engineering firms linking with the state to, for example, build optional toll lanes on I-95. The money goes to improve the road. The new lanes offer speedier commutes.

Yet even this measure, sponsored and pushed by House Transportation Committee Chairman Rick Geist, R-Altoona, took four sessions to pass.

Transportation is an issue of public safety; as Geist says, "a core function of government." He notes, "We've danced for nine years and got nothing done."

But he also says that the 128-66 bipartisan vote to pass his partnership measure is "a good bellwether" of support for funding, and that fellow-Republican Corbett "has to" get on board.

"You come to a point when it's so bad you have to step up," says Geist.

The point's been reached. We'll see who steps up, you know, after the breaks.

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