Inquirer Editorial: A political toll for road funding

Gov. Corbett greeted SEPTA employees and others before signing a transportation bill in Norristown last month.
Gov. Corbett greeted SEPTA employees and others before signing a transportation bill in Norristown last month. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 05, 2013

Perhaps it would take a naïf to expect Pennsylvania's legislators to pass a transportation bill just because it's, you know, their job. And there aren't many innocents left in Harrisburg. So to get the bill passed, the legislature revived its reviled tradition of allowing its members to distribute some of the spoils, a practice previously known by the charming term "walking-around money."

Tens of millions of dollars a year was apparently the price the rest of us paid to persuade some of our already well-compensated representatives to fund work on roads, bridges, and mass-transit systems - that is, to keep "walking around" from becoming the commonwealth's last safe mode of transportation.

After much dithering and cajoling, the legislature has passed a bill enabling $2.3 billion a year in additional transportation funding. Generated by higher gas taxes, licensing fees, and traffic fines, most of the money can be expected to go to sorely needed maintenance of the state's transportation network, as identified by professionals in the state Department of Transportation and local agencies. But lawmakers also reserved up to about $60 million a year to be distributed by more dubious means - namely, themselves.

That money will be controlled by the Commonwealth Financing Authority, which cannot act without the assent of appointees from all four legislative caucuses. That puts the decisions in the hands of the Republican and Democratic leadership of both houses. During the floor debate on the bill, State Sen. Jim Ferlo (D., Allegheny) said flatly that this amounts to a resurrection of walking-around money, a practice repeatedly declared dead, most recently by Gov. Corbett.

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler) told The Inquirer he is more troubled by funds to be awarded at the discretion of the transportation secretary. That's a puzzling criticism, because the executive branch is exactly where such decisions are supposed to be made.

As for the troubling legislative slush fund, its defenders have said it will be spent more transparently than the pork of yesteryear. They also emphasized the broader importance of the transportation funding bill.

Of course, if the only way to prevent the state's bridges from collapsing is to tithe 2 or 3 percent to the whims of legislative leaders, this may be a necessary bit of blackmail. But it's a shame that it came to that.

Pennsylvania's legislature is among the nation's largest and most expensive, with little of the productivity to match. The public shouldn't be forced to pay another political surcharge for the privilege of a functioning transportation system.

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