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Green Party Response to Transportation Funding and Reform Commission Report01.24.07

Pennsylvania Transportation Funding and Reform Commission Report:

A response

Transportation Working Group (TWG)

Green Party of Philadelphia

January 19, 2007

On February 28, 2005, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell signed an executive order to form a nine-member commission to study and propose recommendations for funding and reforming the state’s transportation system, including roads, bridges and public transit. The Pennsylvania Transportation Funding and Reform Commission presented its final report on November 13, 2006.

The work of the commission presented an opportunity to address many long-standing and serious deficiencies in the transportation sector. The work was bi-partisan and public input was actively solicited throughout. To its credit, the commission clearly identifies a crisis situation in all systems and uses frank language in addressing issues such as “inadequate” transit funding, a “dysfunctional” program structure that “needs to be totally overhauled,” and “nonsensical” transit fare structures. “Transit agencies of every size and character across the Commonwealth have been so challenged by the need to focus on survival that they cannot optimize normal day-to-day service, let alone plan for their future needs.” (1) The commission establishes links between funding and reform and sees the need across all systems to find long-term solutions that go beyond temporary “stopgap” measures. It calls attention to the particular transportation needs of a state population that is older and poorer than the national average and recommends support for those with special needs. The commission devotes considerable space to the challenges of public transit and recommends long-term, dedicated (operational, capital) and increased funding that can “stabilize and expand” public transportation service in Pennsylvania. Finally, the commission recommends major changes in the governance structure of SEPTA to correspond with its ridership base and distribution of funding subsidies.

Although there is much to be commended in the commission’s report, it also has significant shortcomings. Its stated highest priority is the “mobility of all Pennsylvanians” (5) and it seeks to address the “economic consequence of a failing transportation system” (2). This dual theme of mobility and commerce recurs throughout the report. However, the State bears responsibility not only for ensuring mobility and fiscal health, but also for building and maintaining environmentally-sensitive transportation systems that can be sustained for future generations. The commission does not give significant recognition to these concerns – many of which have a major, long-term impact on the fiscal health of the Commonwealth – and thus its recommendations to the State do not take the necessary step from merely coordinating the various transportation options to prioritizing them. The vast numbers of vehicles congesting Pennsylvania roadways not only impede mobility and economic productivity, but contribute significantly to the worldwide depletion of energy supplies, increased CO2 emissions and global warming of the planet. In addition, the health-related costs of vehicle emissions in the Commonwealth are $1.1-1.8 billion annually. While the governor and commission may have considered these factors to be beyond the scope of their work, they are integral to, and inseparable from, the transportation policy issues raised in the report:

Land use. The commission supports a policy of integrating transportation with “land use, economic development and environmental policies, programs and goals” (10), but concludes that “strict regulatory control on growth to curb sprawl is not plausible” (98). Sprawling growth is one of the most pervasive impediments to long-term sustainable transportation both state- and nationwide. It is not sufficient to merely note the “challenges” that population shifts bring, because decentralized growth and energy-efficient transit by nature represent competing interests.

Funding. The commission proposes significantly higher new funding for roads and bridges than for transit, yet clearly, transit should be prioritized in current and future proposals, and freight shipping increasingly transferred from road to rail. Prioritization of capacity expansion projects toward transit is especially critical. Safety considerations of existing roadways and bridges (reductions in fatalities and injuries) should be the overriding basis for highway funding, while unrelated improvements and any further efforts to increase the attractiveness of automotive travel should be discouraged.

Oversight and control. Although TWG supports increased PennDOT oversight, enforcement and consolidated procurement policies in transit agencies, it also recommends that to every extent possible operational decisions remain within the jurisdiction of local transit authorities. In keeping with the State’s role in safeguarding service levels and fiscal responsibility, TWG is critical of the aggressive focus on public-private partnerships (P3s) and is opposed outright to the sale of the PA turnpike. It also expresses its opposition to bringing Amtrak under State control (81); Amtrak is and should remain a national passenger rail service and under the control and support of the federal government. Although labor costs make up the largest share of operating costs, TWG also objects to any attempts to weaken the bargaining power of transportation labor unions; other cost reduction measures may be less expedient, but more just.

Accountability. The commission subjected seven transit agencies to audits, but did not require similar levels of scrutiny and accountability of the many State bureaus and commercial businesses responsible for roadways and bridges, even though 81% of PennDOT operational expenditures in 2005 were highway-related.[1] It makes good business sense to link State support to current performance, but the State must also have the foresight to support future-oriented, environmentally sustainable transit systems that may currently have only average or even poor performance indicators. “Accountability” and “return on investment” have not only economic, but also environmental significance (112). Any cost-benefit analysis needs to include external, social and environmental costs and benefits. The report emphasizes the funding aspect of SEPTA operations but does little to address the urgently needed reform of its organization and opaque management style. TWG welcomes the commission’s call for increased funding to SEPTA from a dedicated tax base; at the same time, the transit agency must be held more openly accountable to riders for its use of all current and future funding. This will ultimately benefit service quality and thus increase loyal ridership.

Taxes. Among its legislative proposals, the commission omits – and thus could not recommend – discussion of the repeal of the Commonwealth’s constitutional ban on funding public transit from motor fuel taxes. TWG supports this repeal. The commission acknowledges the political liability associated with raising taxes. In states across the nation, however, citizens have declared their willingness to accept tax increases if they can expect efficient, attractive transportation services in return. So it is commendable and appropriate that the commission does not shrink from making specific and feasible proposals regarding fees and taxes that could permanently close the funding gap.

In the absence of a responsible environmental perspective, little discussion in the report is devoted to encouraging aspects of transportation such as “transit priority” actions (37, 57, 70), mechanisms for managing growth and reducing auto travel (98), policies to encourage development patterns that reduce auto travel (99, 100), and transit-oriented development (101). The commission fails to voice its strong support for these measures in its recommendations to the State legislature.

In this light, TWG encourages the Pennsylvania State legislature to review and act upon the commission’s  recommendations, but to do so based on a fiscal perspective that includes responsible, long-term environmental controls.

[1] Pennsylvania Department of Transportation 2005 Annual Report, p. 23.

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