By Kate Harper
I never expected transportation funding, that most bipartisan of issues, to fall victim to bitter wrangling that has left it on life-support.
That we need more transportation funding should not come as a surprise. A dozen studies have said so. The commonwealth has been ranked number one in the nation for deficient bridges.
Pennsylvania funds most of its roads and bridges through a "flat" cents-per-gallon tax at the gas pump. But as cars become more fuel-efficient and road and bridge repairs become more expensive, the tax isn't enough to do the job. Most of our highways and bridges were built in the post-World War II era. Our mass-transit systems have similar infrastructure and operating needs.
In other times, a coalition of like-minded legislators who understood the need for more transportation funding could pass a bill. Urban legislators would support a package that funded mass transit. Rural guys would support a package that funded local roads and bridges. Suburban legislators would supply the necessary votes to reach a majority.
Not this year. Instead, extreme partisans stopped a transportation funding bill in its tracks in the House. They declared that not a single Democrat would vote for it and only half the Republicans needed to pass it were on board. Short of the support needed for passage, (the Senate approved it 45-0), the bill was not called for a vote.
It's not easy for any elected official to vote for an increase in registration fees and the price of gas, even if that increase means an extra $2 a week at the pump for the average driver. Such a vote could mean defeat in the next election.
On the other hand, the transportation bill had wide support. Both labor and business groups were for it. But conservatives who sometimes confuse "limited government" with "no government," and liberals who were angry at Gov. Corbett for other things and wanted to deny his administration this legislation, combined to scuttle the bill and thus failed to produce any new transportation money.
Each partisan faction achieved its aim, but the commonwealth is the worse for it.
One of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, which turned New Orleans into a disaster area and cost 1,800 lives, is that if you wait until it starts raining to worry if you spent enough money on your infrastructure, then you've waited too long.
In the short term, the problems are hard to notice. A bridge that looks tired but doesn't fall down isn't news. We tend to think it's a local problem when we can't get to work on time because traffic has gridlocked the roads, oblivious to the gridlock in Harrisburg that is the root of the problem.
But in the long term, watch what happens as the Department of Transportation is forced to "weight restrict" bridges. In rural areas, dairy trucks will be forced to take long detours around problem areas. In the Southeast, SEPTA lines will be delayed or curtailed when tracks and overpasses can't be maintained because of a lack of funding.
No one likes to pay more for anything and, yes, it would be nice if we could find and excise enough "waste, fraud, and abuse" in government to produce savings of hundreds of millions of dollars each year to spend on our transportation system. But that doesn't seem likely.
Instead, what needs to happen is for legislators in the middle, from both the Democratic and Republican caucuses, to decide that it's more important to get this done than to march in lockstep with highly partisan leaders. If that happens, we could get a majority to pass a bill that would provide funding for our transportation needs.
For the long-term safety of all Pennsylvanians, the center must not yield. It must hold together to pass a transportation funding bill.
State Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery) represents Pennsylvania's 61st House District. E-mail her at Kharper@pahousegop.com.