Before Pennsylvania can tackle its crumbling highway infrastructure, it must build a different kind of bridge to span the gap between deteriorating tax revenue and new sources of capital.
The most promising way to do that is through P3s. Shorthand for public-private partnerships, P3s are being used with success around the globe to repair or construct highway systems.
But when former Gov. Ed Rendell proposed ideas such as tolling Interstate 80 or leasing the turnpike to raise cash for road work around the state, he met resistance not only at home but in Washington.
Now the concept is back in the form of House Bill 3. The bill was approved last week and sent on to the state Senate, which has its own P3 bill in committee.
We have more structurally deficient bridges than any other state and 8,000 miles of roads in poor condition. Construction money is tight, though, and not just because of the economy. Technology and changing habits are behind a steady fall in the liquid fuels tax dedicated to roads. That revenue is dwindling as motorists drive less and purchase more efficient vehicles. Federal highway funds are drying up for similar reasons. A Congressional Budget Office report sees the Highway Trust Fund, already in steep decline, falling to zero in 2014.
Gov. Tom Corbett’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission drew up a revenue plan last year that includes uncapping the gas and oil company franchise tax, increasing fees, moving the state police budget to the general fund and modernizing PennDOT.
That still won’t be enough. Meanwhile, capital is going begging. Both the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers, for example, back P3 legislation because of the opportunity public-private partnerships offer for pension fund investment.
Critics warn that only populous areas will attract P3s. But private investment stretches tax money for other projects, and revenue-sharing agreements on P3 endeavors could be another funding source for more rural areas.
In addition to putting private money to work for public good, P3s will create jobs in the private sector, where they belong. An adequately funded transportation program would create more than 50,000 jobs and about $80 million per year in payroll and income taxes, according to a 2011 study cited by the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association.
P3s need to come off the drawing board so they can begin paving a new route to a safer, more efficient highway system in Pennsylvania.