Highway funding in the land of the self-inflicted wound

August 29, 2019

Mark Reddig


On Earth Day in 1971, the main character in the old comic strip “Pogo” says one of the most important – and frequently true – phrases in American politics: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

In terms of road funding, the latest case of that classic self-inflicted wound is in Pennsylvania, a state that seems perennially unable to properly pay for its highways.

Land Line Now first discovered the state’s taste for shoe leather back in late 2007, when we took a deep dive into the figures behind Pennsylvania’s road funding system.

What we found at the time was that an enormous amount of highway money, including funding provided by the federal government specifically for road and bridge work, was being diverted to other uses.

The typical offenders were there, of course – bike and hike paths, street beautification and so on. However, also present were things like roadside attractions and museums. That included a railroad museum in a town where the state lawmaker openly admitted he would grab any money he could for his district, no matter what it was intended for. He didn’t seem to care whether it meant misusing highway money or not.

However, the biggest offender was none of those. It was roughly a half billion dollars in federal highway money diverted specifically to support financially failing mass transit systems in the state’s two largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The reason this was so important then is simple: The state claimed it could not afford needed road work and was trying to toll Interstate 80 and then use the funds for other highway projects throughout the state.

It’s pertinent again today because under that deal, called Act 44, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Authority was required to collect the money that was supposed to be paid in tolls on Interstate 80 and then give it to the state Department of Transportation so that the state could then spend it elsewhere.

However, the federal government put the kibosh on tolling the highway, saying the state did not have authority to do so.

This is where it gets tricky. Under Act 44, the Turnpike Authority was still required to turn that same amount of money over to the state every single year – I-80 tolls or not.

Without the additional money from Interstate 80 tolls, however, meeting that obligation meant the Turnpike Authority had to simultaneously increase tolls on the turnpike to outrageous levels while at the same time going wildly into debt.

Now we are seeing another situation that indicates that most of Pennsylvania’s Highway funding wounds are completely self-inflicted.

Just as Act 44 would likely not have been necessary had Pennsylvania avoided diverting highway money to failing mass transit systems, we now find out, as reported by Keith Goble at Land Line Magazine, that another boondoggle is causing the state’s highway funds to run short.

Roughly two-thirds of the more than 2,500 towns in the state rely not on their own local police, but instead use the services in the Pennsylvania State Police for local patrols.

Here’s why that figures into Pennsylvania’s woefully awful highway funding scheme. The Land Line report indicates $800 million annually from the motor license fund goes to the state police for those patrols.

That money is intended for road and bridge work. So instead of taking care of its intended purpose, that entire batch of tax money pays for police protection for cities that are too lazy or cheap to provide it for themselves.

Makes you wonder what they could do with another $800 million – more than three-quarters of a billion dollars – every single year if that money actually went to road and bridge work. That’s a lot of darn potholes.

To Pennsylvania’s credit, some state officials are acting to fix the problem by requiring those cities to pay a fee to cover at least part of the cost of their police protection.

However, that fee is estimated to raise roughly $104 million.

That means, according to math, that we still have roughly $700 million being pipelined to the state police that should be paid by local taxpayers – you know, the way it is everywhere else in America.

Lawmakers at all levels are notorious for this kind of idiocy. When they see a pile of money, even if they promised that money would be used for a specific purpose, they can’t seem to help themselves.

It’s like a scene in “The Godfather III,” in which Don Corleone is trying to go legit, and is in control of Immobiliare – a real estate company owned in part by the Vatican. At a meeting of the other mob leaders from around the country, one of the other dons points out that Immobiliare is laundering money, and another mob chieftain complains that Corleone should let them wet our beaks a little – meaning give them a piece of the financial action.

That I can draw a realistic comparison between state governments and a movie about the mob should be very telling. And it is.

It comes down to this: If you are a legislator and you want to do something, find a way to pay for it and propose it at the same time. If you lack the guts to do that, then shut up.

Pennsylvania lawmakers allowed this $800 million boondoggle by lazy city governments that didn’t want to pay for their own police. They should solve it. Not by solving one-eighth of it, but by solving all of, by putting local governments’ own police protection back in their hands.

And if they don’t want pay for it and therefore have no police protection, that’s on them.
Roughly a decade ago, James Oberstar, one-time chairman of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, was trying with little success to push through a new highway bill.

During a speech to the Transportation Committee, he said this, paraphrasing loosely: We used to have a thing in this country called political will. We used to have a thing called leadership.

Oberstar was asking his congressional colleagues to have the guts to raise the fuel tax and fix the highways, and then to explain to the public why it was needed.

If you’re a lawmaker that has no political will, no desire or not enough guts to actually do your job, if you’re not willing to lead, or if perhaps you’re more concerned with re-election, it may be time for another profession.

Perhaps basket weaving?

At least that way none of us have to deal with cowards in public office, and somebody will get a nice basket.