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P3 bills could get lost in state budget shuffle

Separate legislation has cleared House, Senate; final resolution up in the air

The state House and Senate have passed versions of a bill that would allow the commonwealth to lease transportation assets to private firms with the ultimate goal of seeing those highways and bridges rebuilt.

The state House and Senate have passed versions of a bill that would allow the commonwealth to lease transportation assets to private firms with the ultimate goal of seeing those highways and bridges rebuilt.

And while Gov. Tom Corbett and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree the use of public-private partnerships, or P3s, would be a good first step in addressing the major backlog of transportation infrastructure projects, a final resolution remains in doubt.

With debate over a 2012-13 state budget at the forefront of summer session days, it’s unclear whether House Bill 3 or Senate Bill 344 will pass the other chamber before the end of the legislative session this year.

The Senate passed its version of P3 at the end of last year; the House in April voted to move HB 3. Both now sit in committee.

The P3s are designed to attract private investment in large-scale assets and free up limited public dollars for maintenance and safety projects. In return, the private entity would generate a return through user fees or tolling.

The governor supports the legislation and would sign it into law if a bill reaches his desk, said Kelli Roberts, a Corbett spokeswoman.

“We are supportive and have been working with the House and Senate on the language,” she said.

However, once the budget is done in June, the General Assembly traditionally is off in July and August. The looming election is expected to overshadow any significant activity in the fall, and there will be no lame-duck session in November, so the best chance for P3 legislation might be in concert with the budget.

“It’s certainly something that could happen,” said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Republicans. “Also, it may get decided to hold it until there is more focus on a broader transportation plan.”

Possible solutions to Pennsylvania’s transportation funding hole — an estimated annual unmet need of $3.5 billion, according to a 2010 study by the Pennsylvania State Transportation Advisory Committee — have been offered by Republican and Democratic lawmakers in both chambers.

Those bills remain on the sidelines in committee until the governor weighs in on his level of support.

Many of the proposals have paralleled recommendations from Corbett’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission.

In August, the commission drew up proposals that would add about $2.5 billion for infrastructure over a five-year period. The commission’s plan included uncapping the gas and oil company franchise tax, increasing fees, moving the state police budget over to the general fund and modernizing programs at the state Department of Transportation.

“There is no legal reason that (P3) needs to wait for a broader package, but it may make good policy sense to do that if there is a way to more closely intertwine the two to be most effective,” Arneson said.

Pennsylvania has the most structurally deficient bridges of any state in the nation, with more than 5,000, or about 26 percent of the state-owned inventory, according to the advisory committee study.

P3 should be viewed as a tool or arrow in the quiver to begin addressing the infrastructure needs, said Eric Madden, executive vice president of the Harrisburg-based American Council of Engineering Companies of Pennsylvania.

“By itself, (P3) is not the panacea to all of our transportation funding problems,” he said. “It’s a great tool, but it will take years for the revenue to come to fruition.”

Nevertheless, another year of delay should not be the answer, Madden said.

“Every day of delay is one more day that everyone is just sitting in congestion,” he said.

Passing a bill this year would send a strong message to the business community and public that state government is listening to their concerns, he said.

“This is pure economic development. We’re talking about creating engineering and construction jobs and opportunities that support those jobs,” Madden said.

If all of the commission’s recommendations were put into effect, it would cost an average motorist 70 cents more per week in the first year, increasing to about $2.50 per week by the fifth year, according to the 2011 report.

“Every time we don’t do something, we do Band-Aids,” Madden said. “After a while, the cut is so big that the Band-Aid isn’t going to do anything.”

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