Simple key to a funding crisis

For the long-term viability of Penna.'s public transportation infrastructure, take the politics out of the financing.
For the long-term viability of Penna.'s public transportation infrastructure, take the politics out of the financing. (BARBARA L. JOHNSTON / File Photograph)
Posted: September 09, 2012

Pete Rahn

is the national transportation practice leader of HNTB Corp., an employee-owned infrastructure firm with a major office in Philadelphia

One year ago, Gov. Corbett's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission recommended a variety of long-term options to address an aging infrastructure suffering from decades of insufficient funding.

Since then, significant steps have been taken, including the passage of public-private partnership legislation and a revised 12-year transportation plan that incorporates some modernization initiatives. Yet the underlying problem remains: The well from which the nation - and Pennsylvania - draw transportation funds is running dry.

Our highway system is financed largely by per-gallon federal and state fuel taxes, along with various vehicle user fees. The federal fuel tax hasn't been increased since 1993. Pennsylvania's state fuel tax of 32.3 cents per gallon has not been raised in the last 15 years. Inflation, changing driving habits, and rising construction costs are eating away at the purchasing power of these funds.

A simple change in how we think of our roads, bridges, and tunnels could generate a giant leap forward toward solving this transportation funding crisis. We need to see our surface-transportation facilities for what they really are: public utilities.

Every day, we depend on transportation every bit as much as other similarly essential services, including electricity, water, sewers, natural gas, and telephones. Such public utilities champion the common good every day.

Across the country, the mechanism for properly funding these modern necessities is public utility commissions. Independent boards are responsible for ensuring that local, regional, and state utility companies have enough revenue to meet the public need, but not so much that they generate excessive income.

Commissions provide a ready-made model to follow and improve upon.

Understand: Adequately funding critical transportation infrastructure is a matter of economic survival. The governor's commission warned that the state's unfunded transportation needs would reach $7.2 billion within a decade if action were not taken to directly address the shortfall. This isn't just a challenge for our elected and appointed officials. It hits you square in the pocketbook.

The Road Information Program (TRIP), a national transportation research group, has reported that 72 percent of Philadelphia's major roads were, as of 2010, in poor or mediocre condition. That costs area motorists 70 hours per year in traffic and $1,474 per year in higher vehicle operating costs, traffic crashes, and congestion-related delays. These costs are often hidden, yet they are much higher than what we pay per gallon of gasoline.

Let's take the politics out of transportation funding. Rather than forcing elected officials to make potentially career-ending decisions, independent commissions could regularly adjust fuel-tax rates and other fees to ensure our transportation network's long-term viability.

Independent transportation-rate commissions could be formed at both the state and federal levels of government. To keep the process in check, state legislatures and Congress could have the power to overturn by a supermajority vote any decision the commissions would make.

A public utility approach would ensure that the state has a safe, adequate surface-transportation system. And an independent commission also would prevent transportation agencies from collecting more revenue than they needed.

We've seen such solutions work in the past at the federal level, perhaps most effectively with the military's Base Realignment and Closure Commission. When it became politically treacherous to select which U.S.-based military facilities to cut or close, Congress delegated the decision-making process to an independent commission.

As a nation, we must ensure we are investing adequately in our transportation system so it remains a valuable asset, not a national liability. For Gov. Corbett and state legislators who want to address the transportation crisis, but not agonize over tax issues, managing the state's transportation system as a public utility is a smart solution.


E-mail Pete Rahn at prahn@hntb.com.

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