How Harrisburg (probably illegally) mishandles road and bridge funds

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The dome of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg.

Today we offer a fresh example of Harrisburg hoodwinking taxpayers and mishandling money through its arcane budget process.

Buckle up. It’s a bumpy ride.

You may know Pennsylvania has the nation’s highest gas tax (58.2 cents a gallon), expressly enacted to fix rotten roads and broken bridges across the state.

Not without reason.

U.S. Department of Transportation data show we have a higher percentage (42 percent) of “structurally deficient/functionally obsolete” bridges than all our neighboring states; a higher percentage (57 percent) of “poor/mediocre” roads than all neighbors but New York.

It says 46 states have better bridges, 32 have better roads; and ours cost average motorists an extra $341 a year in repairs and operating costs.

You can see how raising revenue to change that makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense, and is largely unseen, is this: The legislature and governors, Republican and Democrat, Tom Ridge to Tom Wolf, annually siphon off funds allocated to fix roads and bridges, and use the money for something else -- to bolster budgets of the Pennsylvania State Police.

But the way they do it looks illegal. Here’s why.

The state Motor License Fund is fed by your gas taxes and license and vehicle fees. The state Constitution (Art. VIII, Sec. 11) says it shall be used “solely for construction, reconstruction, maintenance and repair of and safety on public highways and bridges.”

But big chunks of the fund are not used for roads, bridges, or their safety.

How big? In just one year (fiscal 2015-16), $222 million-plus.

That’s according to a first-ever, recently released analysis by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, the Legislature’s bipartisan research arm.

And that’s enough, the study says, to resurface 1,111 miles of roadway or “design, replace and maintain 138 bridges for the next 25 years.”

So if you’ve wondered, "Hey, after paying higher gas taxes since 2014, how come my roads and bridges aren’t better?" Maybe you just got your answer.

See, PSP gets most of its revenue from the motor fund on grounds it meets the constitutional requirement since highway patrol contributes to “safety on” highways.

But there’s a problem.

The legislative analysis shows that of the total fund money PSP got for the year examined ($755 million), $222.2 million wasn’t for highway safety. It was mixed in with other money to run the PSP.

Industry experts and lawmakers say diverting these funds has gone on since the 1990s, and continues.

Why? Because lawmakers support PSP increases but don’t want to pass honest budgets that might require new revenue or spending cuts. So they rob one pot to pay another; basically doing what they want, regardless of laws of the land.

“It’s absolutely unconstitutional,” says House Transportation Committee boss Rep. John Taylor (R., Phila.), who last year prompted the motor fund review.

“It’s just been a budgetary end-around for years. If it continues, we’re not going to be able to fill potholes, let alone fix bridges and roads,” Taylor says.

It also deceives taxpayers who think all their higher driving costs are used to address infrastructure problems. And it forestalls construction and related jobs.

“We’re missing on roads and bridges every year,” says House Democratic Policy Chairman Rep. Mike Sturla (D., Lancaster). “We get budgets that don’t balance, and we’re stealing from the Motor License Fund, and I’m not getting roads paved in my district. … I think we’re in violation of the constitution.”

Efforts to fix this include capping motor fund money to PSP and charging municipalities with no police departments for PSP coverage.

But, come on, fixing long-term problems isn’t exactly Harrisburg’s strong suit.

And consider this. The legislative study looked at just one year. How much highway/bridge money was lost over time? A billion? More?

When I seek an administration response to the study, Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott says, “The study is a look back. Our goal is moving the ball forward.”

OK. By all means, let’s do that.