Pennsylvania’s problems with transportation funding are hardly new and should not be blamed entirely on the coronavirus pandemic.
Remember that last fall PennDOT was announcing delays to long-awaited projects in this region and all over the state, as planners had to figure out the best way to use limited available funds. The problems that led to that situation are still here and will continue long after the pandemic is over unless some changes are made.
It’s particularly frustrating because Pennsylvania has one of America’s highest gasoline taxes, yet it’s not producing enough money to properly repair and modernize our aging network of roads and bridges.
Fuel tax revenues have taken a hit due to the growing popularity of more efficient vehicles.
Federal transportation funding has been flat for years. And billions of dollars that could be going toward infrastructure improvements have been spent to fund the state police due to a regrettable decision to use fuel tax revenue for that purpose.
Of course the pandemic has made the situation even worse. People are driving less, meaning fuel tax revenues are down sharply. PennDOT is looking at an $8.1 billion funding gap.
It got so bad that the agency recently threatened to halt projects and lay off thousands of workers due to a $600 million shortfall. State lawmakers and the Wolf administration eventually worked out a deal to solve that problem in the short term, but the issue is not going away.
What’s been needed for a long time is a comprehensive approach to ensure Pennsylvania has enough money to sustain the transportation infrastructure so essential to our economy and quality of life.
Some old ideas still are worth pursuing, such as finding another way to fund state police or at least charging municipalities that rely on troopers rather than supporting a local force. An increase in the federal gas tax is warranted as well.
One new idea that has received plenty of attention is a proposal to charge fees for motorists driving across some bridges. It’s unclear exactly what bridges would have tolls or how such a plan would be implemented, though electronic tolling systems make such ideas much more workable than they had been in years past.
The notion of a toll to cross Reading’s Penn Street Bridge was once fodder for a newspaper April Fool’s Day prank.
Now it’s a possibility.
There’s no doubt that most members of the public do not support the prospect of higher tolls, fees or taxes. It’s understandable. The problem is that just about everyone agrees that providing transportation infrastructure is an essential government function, but it’s hard to garner support for any idea that would produce the funding required.
The same is true regarding countless other issues facing our financially strapped state as it tries to keep vital services funded amid a deep loss in revenue due to the pandemic.
For years, even during much better times, we have been calling on state leaders to embark on a serious, bipartisan effort to figure out a fair, reliable way to fund the services on which Pennsylvanians rely. Leaning on budgetary gimmicks and revenue from activities such as gambling can only go so far.
The need for a new approach is even greater now. It’s nice to think that the problem can be solved simply by cutting government waste, but that eternal talking point only goes so far.
Transportation needs are only growing. Revenue sources are drying up. The state needs more money
For starters, lawmakers should address the immediate problem of PennDOT’s current shortfall, as what we have now is just a temporary fix. A proposal sponsored by local state Rep. Katie Muth deserves a close look.
It would authorize PennDOT to borrow the money needed to continue ongoing projects. Then the debate must turn to long-term needs.
Are we eager for the prospect of being hit with tolls all over the state? No. But the very proposal should spur serious conversations about finding better ways of addressing transportation funding, once and for all. There’s no more time to wait. -- The Reading Eagle