It's a rough time to be a regional planner.

With the economy in prolonged slump and election season upon us, planners - that cadre of workaday civil servants for whom grand road design, smartly executed shopping centers, and effective use of open space get the blood pumping - are fighting an uphill battle.

"State and local governments are stressed. There's less money going around. And politicians don't know which way to turn," said Paul Farmer, executive director of the American Planning Association.

Planners, most of whom work for local governments or within quasi-governmental groups, can dream up all the visions of a municipal future they want. But without buy-in and funding from politicians, they might as well be building castles in the clouds.

And lately the politicians aren't buying.

Take, for example, the debate over Route 422.

Everyone seems to agree that something needs to be done to relieve the perpetually gridlocked corridor between Reading and Philadelphia. Few are willing to pay more out of their own pockets to fix it.

Still, the planners persist.

This summer, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission - a federally and state-funded planning organization for Southeastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware - unveiled a proposal to toll portions of the highway to pay for necessary improvements such as adding lanes and bridges and restoring a commuter rail line that parallels the highway. Tolls would be collected by a local authority and devoted only to projects along the 422 corridor.

Charging drivers to take to the roadway may not be ideal, said DVRPC executive director Barry Seymour, but given current road-funding prospects in Harrisburg, it may be the only way to raise the necessary money.

Seymour, a veteran planner who has had his hands in every major Philadelphia-area development project in his years running the DVRPC, warned that waiting for the state to dig up the dollars for Route 422 improvements might mean waiting decades.

But judging from audience reaction at a recent community forum in Royersford, this type of "if-you-want-something-done-right" thinking doesn't have much purchase these days.

State Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) called the meeting along with three of his House colleagues to address constituents' concerns over the plan and to publicly stake out their opposition.

Seymour and Joseph M. Hoeffel III, a Montgomery County commissioner and DVRPC board member, dutifully played their roles as straw men in a room where they had few fans.

"I think it's safe to say everyone came to that meeting against tolling and left against tolling," Hoeffel said after.

Questions asked of the panel that night ranged from the balking ("Why should I pay for someone else to ride the train?") to the hostile ("PennDot has mismanaged road funding so far. What makes a local 422 tolling authority any different?").

At times, people in the audience shouted down explanations from Hoeffel and Seymour with red-faced fervor. The lawmakers piled on.

"There's a general lack of confidence toward the federal government, the state government, and the local government," State Rep. Tom Quigley (R., Montgomery) told the crowd. "I think all of you in this down economy are doing more with less, and the government needs to take a hard look at how it's spending your money."

To enact the tolling plan, state legislators must first pass a bill allowing the creation of a local tolling authority. Then, county commissioners in the three counties through which 422 passes - Berks, Chester and Montgomery - must vote to band together to participate.

So far, commissioner candidates in all three counties have said they oppose tolling. And judging from the panel of lawmakers at the Royersford hearing - State Reps. Marcy Toepel (R., Montgomery) and Warren Kampf (R., Chester), along with Quigley and Vereb - the proposal has few friends in Harrisburg.

To this, Hoeffel responds: OK, but what else are they willing to do to solve the problem? So far, few have offered answers to that challenge.

Hoeffel, who is expected to retire from politics at the end of the year, has emerged in his lame-duck stage as something of a patron saint of lost regional planning causes. (He was one of the primary advocates of an equally controversial plan to preserve the runway at the decommissioned Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Horsham for the possibility of a future airport.)

For him, both of these debates boil down to one of government's fundamental roles.

"Even in a recession, government has to keep moving forward. It has to invest. It has to continue solving problems. It has to maintain roads and bridges and promote economic development in order to meet our public obligation," he said. "The voters are angry, but they are looking for leadership, not inertia."

Or, as the late Democratic U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn - himself an advocate of big public projects - once put it: "Any jackass can kick down a barn. It takes a good carpenter to build one."

At this moment in Pennsylvania politics there don't appear to be many carpenters left.