Pennsylvania’s large transportation system is getting old.
Nearly 6,000 of the state’s bridges were deemed structurally deficient in 2008. Its 40,000 miles of state-maintained highway — making it No. 5 in the nation — shows critical signs of wear. Truck traffic on 1,754 miles of interstate highways is more than double the national average.
Last November, Pennsylvania tired of waiting for Washington to address its transportation problems and took matters into its own hands.
Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, signed a bipartisan transportation bill giving the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation $2.3 billion over five years to repair and maintain state roads and bridges, plus the mass transit system.
That’s on top of the $6 billion a year PennDOT was set to receive.
“The extra resources were critically needed,” PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick says.
Although some conservative lawmakers criticized the bill because it raises Pennsylvania’s gas tax to pay for road improvements (the increase will be phased in at the wholesale level), the move represents an attempt by a state to regain control of its transportation destiny.
Lawmakers at the federal and state levels across the nation have grappled for years with shortfalls in highway funding.
The federal Highway Trust Fund gets its money from the federal gasoline tax. Not only has the tax held steady at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, it produces less revenue today because Americans drive less and get better gas mileage.
Shortly before its August recess, Congress approved a 10-month patch to replenish the nearly exhausted Highway Trust Fund, but that only put off the debate until next year.
“Our transportation needs were underfunded, apart from what is happening in Washington, ” PennDOT’s Kirkpatrick says.
Pennsylvania lawmakers want to bring some certainty to the process now. Just before Congress passed its highway bill, a group of state legislators wrote to Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, urging him to support an alternative that they knew wouldn’t be voted on yet — the Transportation Empowerment Act.
The lawmakers, led by state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler County, chairman of the Pennsylvania House’s State Government Committee, said they preferred the approach of the Transportation Empowerment Act because it would “return the funding of transportation projects to the states.”
The bill’s sponsors, Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, say their plan would give block grants to states to pay for individual transportation needs and lower the federal gas tax to 3.7 cents per gallon from 18.4 cents over five years.
“This is a campaign to help people spend less time in traffic and more time enjoying life,” Graves told The Daily Signal in an email. “The Transportation Empowerment Act paves the way for better roads, easier commutes and more family time.”
Metcalfe says he opposed Pennsylvania’s transportation bill because “the state can’t afford it.”
But he does support states’ having more discretion over their transportation funding needs. He told The Daily Signal:
It only makes sense in Pennsylvania to keep the money here. We like to take care of our own. We know our needs better than D.C. I think a minority of states make out well in this deal [under the current system].
Under the current system, states send revenue from the federal gas tax to the Internal Revenue Service. The U.S. Treasury Department places the money in the Highway Trust Fund, then distributes portions to states based on a federal formula.
States and local metropolitan planning organizations work with federal transportation bodies to determine funding priorities.
Metcalfe calls the process a “horse-trading game” that benefits special interests.
For instance, he says, a $1.9 million project to repair the structurally deficient Graham Bridge, in his Butler County district, probably could have waited. A full 80 percent of the total cost is federal money.
“Certainly, that project was a priority, but there had to be some other projects that were more worthy,” Metcalfe says. “They [the agencies involved] barter back and forth.”
The expiration next May of Congress’ temporary fix to the Highway Trust Fund provides another opportunity to enact more comprehensive reform.
The Senate last month voted on the Transportation Empowerment Act as an amendment to the Highway Trust Fund bill, and it got 28 votes, all from Republicans.
The Transportation Empowerment Act has gathered 51 co-sponsors in the House as of Monday. Graves says:
The May deadline has given us valuable time to build more awareness and broaden support. Right now, I’m working to bring state and local officials into the national transportation policy debate. We need their input on the policy and their voices in support of reform.
Regardless of whether Graves’ bill comes to fruition, Pennsylvania’s experiment likely won’t be the last attempt by states to take control of their transportation destinies.
Emily Goff, a transportation policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, says Pennsylvania represents a valuable practice run:
States will learn from one another about what is working and what isn’t. It will never be perfect. But voters can hold states more accountable than they can the federal government.