Doing some holiday driving in Pennsylvania? This column won’t brighten your spirits.
Holiday travel is a reminder of Pennsylvania's bad record (and bad policy) when it comes to infrastructure.
Got a call from a reader reminding me of a nasty little issue involving our roads and bridges, our lackluster legislature and how it skirts the state constitution when it comes to funding infrastructure.
I know, I know, not the kind of thing one wants to think about during this busy travel season.
Still. Inconvenient truths don’t take holidays.
The call came in reference to a column last week on legislative raises and how they happen automatically, easily and annually, unlike how the legislature happens to deal with problems.
See, Pennsylvania has the nation’s highest gas tax (58 cents a gallon; 77 cents counting federal tax), yet some of the nation’s worst roads and bridges.
Yes, the state also has tricky topography, chock-full of hills and mountains, in a region of the country known for taking weather beatings. Hence, our famous potholes.
Which is exactly why our infrastructure should get more attention.
But this year, a study by the financial news firm 24/7 Wall St. says we’re the country’s fourth worst state for roads and bridges. A report by the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit libertarian think tank, puts us in the bottom 10.
And a survey released just last week on best states/worst states for drivers, conducted by the banking industry’s Bankrate.com, based on driving costs, road conditions, commute time, gas prices and such, ranks us a mediocre 33rd.
The kicker here is that our infrastructure would be much better if our lawmakers were any better at budgeting, and following the law rather than maintaining a track record of raiding funds dedicated for road and bridges.
They take money, lots of it, from the state’s Motor License Fund (filled with revenue from the gas tax, license and vehicle fees) to fund the State Police.
This is despite a constitutional mandate (Article VIII, Section 11) that such money is “solely for construction, reconstruction, maintenance and repair of and safety on public highways and bridges ... and shall not be diverted by transfer or otherwise to any other purpose.”
They dodge the provision on grounds that State Police patrolling of highways and bridges enhances their “safety.”
OK. Maybe arguable, but OK.
Ah, but then they go further. A report last year (which I wrote about at the time), by the legislature’s own bipartisan Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, detailed how in one year (fiscal 2015-16) $222 million of the $775 million shifted from the Motor License Fund to the State Police was not used for highway safety, but for other State Police needs.
Why? Because lawmakers are incapable of doing honest budgets. So, they routinely shift money from dedicated funds, such as the state Tobacco Settlement Fund, to pay for whatever they refuse to adequately fund. And they’ve been shifting money from the Motor License Fund to the State Police, in increasing amounts, since the 1990’s.
This means billions of dollars dedicated to infrastructure haven’t been used for infrastructure.
And the “fix”? Gradual restoration of such funding over 10 years. In other words, admitting guilt and slinking away with a long-term payback plan.
Lawmakers capped the motor fund transfer to the State Police at $802 million two years ago, cut it by 4 percent (about $32 million) this fiscal year, and are supposed to cut 4 percent annually until the 2027-28 fiscal year, when the transfer hits $500 million.
But even if this schedule is followed (in a bad budget year, lawmakers could change their mind), think of what’s been lost.
“We’ve been sounding the alarm and calling for caps for 10 years,” says Jason Wagner, director of the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association, a statewide group representing highway builders, engineers, truckers, Pennsylvania AAA, and others.
Wagner says that if, for example, caps had been in place five years ago, the state would have had close to $1 billion in extra infrastructure funding.
So, as you go over the river or through the woods to grandmother’s house or elsewhere, be careful out there.
And remember, as my caller did, your lawmakers have no trouble working together to maintain annual salary raises for themselves. It’s time they work together to maintain the state’s infrastructure for everyone.