LAWMAKERS in Harrisburg will soon decide whether they are interested in taking an affirmative step and making a real investment in our roads, bridges and mass transit using funds from natural-gas extraction. This can happen only if the Marcellus Shale fee legislation now poised for action in both the Senate and House is changed to generate more fee revenue from shale drillers. If that occurs, the shale fee can serve as a catalyst for rebuilding our infrastructure and creating jobs.
What we now need is leadership to make this new energy source work for all Pennsylvania. We clearly have a transportation crisis. We don't need a leadership crisis to compound the problem. Now is the time to take effective action.
There is no question that a large and widening chasm has developed between transportation needs and available funds. In fact, the Transportation Funding and Advisory Commission said we have an immediate need of $3.5 billion to address Pennsylvania's transportation network.
To illustrate the problem, we need to look no further than our own local transportation network. SEPTA, for instance, owns 300 bridges with an average age in excess of 80 years. The transit system's backlog of repairs totals $4.2 billion, according to the Federal Transit Administration. Philadelphia has six of the top-10 worst bridges with the highest traffic volume. The Philadelphia area ranked third-worst nationally in the percentage of deficient bridges, with more than 500.
The problem isn't local, it's statewide. On an average day 22.8 million vehicles cross deficient bridges in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has more bridges considered structurally deficient than any other state. Across the state, 26.5 percent of bridges are deficient and 17 percent obsolete. All told, that's 5,906 bridges that need attention.
At a recent transportation summit that I hosted at Temple University, expert panelists testified about infrastructure conditions and counseled that action is needed now. It is clear that the problem is large and costly, yet few policymakers have jumped up with solutions.
Congress is gridlocked. There is faint hope and likely little immediate help on the horizon from Washington.
At the state level, Corbett has distanced himself from the recommendations of his own advisory commission because it suggested uncapping the Oil Franchise Tax and increasing auto-registration and license fees. In addition, he has said that transportation fixes are not on his policy radar for the immediate future.
Given this intransigence and leadership vacuum, revenues generated from huge shale-drilling operators present a wonderful opportunity to immediately invest dollars from a Pennsylvania resource to solve a Pennsylvania problem.
This can result if we move aggressively and it will occur only if Corbett and Republican lawmakers agree to rein in the industry and pass a responsible shale fee. They didn't get off to a great start. The fee that the Republicans advanced in the legislation that passed the Senate would rank Pennsylvania among the lowest in the nation. The House Republican version is worse.
A few weeks ago, I offered an amendment to the Senate version of the shale bill to increase the extraction fee paid by shale drillers. By 2014, my proposal would nearly double the amount of revenue of the Republican plan, yet it would put Pennsylvania only in the middle of the pack of all states that levy an energy fee.
If my fee plan was adopted, by 2014 SEPTA would be receiving sufficient funds to support an additional $100 million in bond-funded investment to do rehabilitation work within Philadelphia alone. That's real dollars.
The added benefit of investing shale dollars in roads, bridges and mass transit is that it creates jobs. With the unemployment rate at 8.1 percent and more than 513,000 Pennsylvanians out of work, we need to stimulate job creation now.
The shale legislation presents a cost-effective and realistic funding alternative that has the potential to quickly pump hundreds of millions of dollars into our economy. It can be the vehicle that helps us create jobs and repair our infrastructure.
We need to amend the shale bill so that a reasonable extraction fee can be assessed. Then, by tying a healthy portion of this money to road, bridge and transit improvements, we can address critical infrastructure needs and create jobs simultaneously. That is a win for taxpayers.