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Potholes Are Forever

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Gifford Pinchot.jpgAdd another problem to the list of financial woes faced by the state of Pennsylvania.  The Motor License Fund, the state pile of money dedicated to highway and bridge construction and repairs, is seriously under funded.

We pay our gas taxes and license fees into the fund to keep it solvent.  But, the need for repairs far exceeds the dollars available in the fund. It's mostly because the taxes and fees haven't gone up in many years, while construction costs have.

It's something to think about the next time you hit one of those potholes that are springing up everywhere.  If it's on a state road -- it may be there for a long time.

Fortunately, we know who to blame for this mess:  Gifford Pinchot.

Pinchot was Pennsylvania governor in the mid-1920's, a Progressive Republican (in the days before that was an oxymoron), who promised to "get the farmers out of the mud" when he ran for a second term in 1930.

Once elected, Pinchot was as good as his word. He had the state take over 20,000 miles of local, mostly rural roads and proceeded to pave them as a jobs' creation program.

The only thing missing from the newly acquired state roads was traffic. This was during the Great Depression when car ownership was a luxury. There were only about 280,000 cars sold each year in all of America during the 30s. Once paved, those Pinchot Roads, as they were called, required only light maintenance.

We have taken care of that traffic shortage.  Today, we have more registered vehicles in Pennsylvania (11.3 million) than we do adults over 18 (9 million).

Sometimes, it seems, they are all out on the road at the same time.

The cumulative effect of so many cars and trucks is punishing.  Pennsylvania's huge inventory of infrastructure -- nearly 40,000 miles of state roads and 26,000 state-owned bridges - is in need of continual repair. 

The state has not stinted on the money.  In 2008-09, for instance, Pennsylvania spent $5.5 billion on road and bridge construction and repair. Still, it was not enough.  The Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC), a group of highway experts (along with a few elected officials) has estimated that the state comes up several billion dollars short each year when it comes to repairs.

Recently, the situation got even worse.

The state wanted to toll Interstate 80 to raise $442 million a year to feed the Motor License Fund. The federal government turned that request down last year, blowing one hole in the PennDOT budget.

The Obama administration's economic stimulus money was used to pay for additional highway work.  The state got an extra $910 million in federal money for transportation infrastructure work in 2009.  Now, that money is gone -- and there is little chance Congress will provide more.

More important, there is the long-term trend of declining revenue from the state's fuel taxes, which provide 61 cents of every dollar raised for the Motor License Fund.

Revenue from the gasoline tax, which has been at 32.3 cents a gallon since 1997, has declined every year since 2004, due mostly to the use of more fuel-efficient cars. (The state also has a 39.2 cents-a-gallon tax on diesel fuel.)

In sum, there is a growing gap between what we need for highway and bridge repair and what we take in from the various taxes and licenses fees that feed the Motor License Fund.

The Transportation Advisory Committee put it this way in a report on the problem issued in May: "Year after year, there are more infrastructure and services deficiencies than money to address them.  The significant backlog of critical projects hinders the state's economic competitiveness and takes a toll on our people, businesses, and environment."

Thanks to Pinchot, rural areas of the state are especially blessed (or is it cursed?) with state roads.  To compare and contrast, Philadelphia (population 1. 5 million) has 360.5 miles of state roads, while Bradford County (population 63,000) has 896 miles.

Here is a list of the miles of state roads in each county.

What's the solution to this shortage of highway repair money? 

TAC and Gov. Rendell recommended the obvious: increases in transportation-related taxes and fees to feed more money into the Motor License Fund so it could have more money for repairs.

That idea went nowhere last year. There is a general distaste - perhaps revulsion is a better word - towards raising any taxes. Gov. Corbett has pledged not to increase any taxes.

That said, at some point, the politicians - and the citizens - will have to act like adults and admit that if we're going to have a state and local road system totaling 117,000 miles and if we are going to be running millions of vehicles over it every day of the year, it is going to need to be maintained. If we delay those repairs, the situation is only going to get worse - and end up costing even more.

They have these guys, called highway engineers, who can tell you with some precision what needs to be done and when.

You can pretend it doesn't need to be done.  You can decide that you don't want to pay for it. But that doesn't change (forgive the pun) the concrete reality of the need.

Gifford Pinchot had the foresight, vision and guts to realize that the state's future depended on an adequate highway system.  He lifted the farmers out of the mud.

Do we have a political leadership class so short-sighted and so fearful of raising taxes that they are willing to put the farmers -- and the rest of us -- back into the mud?

 

-- Tom Ferrick 

 

Photo:Gov. Gifford Pinchot

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