The fate of funding for Pennsylvania roads, bridges and mass transit depends on political deals that have yet to be made, state legislative leaders said yesterday.
So far, the levers of power have not been lubricated with either money or information, and nothing is likely to happen until they are, the lawmakers said.
The Democratic and Republican whips of the state House - the leaders responsible for rounding up votes - yesterday described lawmaking arithmetic for transportation, civic and business leaders.
"The solution to the crisis last time was rather simple," Rep. David Argall (R., Schuylkill) told a Center City gathering sponsored by the Philadelphia district of the Urban Land Institute. "The people from the prior administration said, 'We really need your vote - what do you need?' "
"This governor hasn't been willing to make that commitment to come to us and say 'Here's what I want; what do you need?' "
And Rep. Keith McCall (D., Carbon) said of efforts to get more funding for SEPTA and other mass-transit agencies: "Put yourselves in our shoes. We have to get the votes. . . . How do I get the votes when the rest of the state doesn't see the benefits?
"The political reality is that it's very hard to get the votes [for mass transit] without dealing with roads and bridges."
Gov. Rendell is trying to raise $1.7 billion a year more for transportation projects. He proposes to get the money to fix roads and bridges by leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private operator for about $12 billion; to get mass-transit funding, Rendell wants a new tax on oil company profits.
The legislature, so far, has been cool to both ideas.
Some of the civic and business leaders in the audience yesterday expressed dismay at the bald description of Harrisburg dealmaking.
Henry Rowan, a Buckingham Township supervisor, received loud applause when he chastised the lawmakers for making trades to get things done.
"How can we expect them to care for our interests if they are only concerned with their own reelection?" Rowan said afterward.
"It pains me to hear that our legislators think voters wouldn't vote for them if they made the correct choices," said Kenneth Balin, chairman of the Philadelphia district of the Urban Land Institute.
But the lawmakers said it was a matter of balancing competing interests.
"If it's not right for Amtran [Altoona's bus system], I can't vote for SEPTA," said Rep. Richard Geist (R., Blair), a leading supporter of leasing the turnpike and other public assets. "Putting together 102 votes in Harrisburg is heavy, heavy lifting."
In addition to funding for local projects, the legislators want more information.
The Rendell administration is keeping secret the 48 "expressions of interest" it has received in the toll road from New York investment banks, Philadelphia law firms, construction giants, international developers, and a prominent think tank. In denying legislative requests to see the proposals, the administration cited their "proprietary nature."
But legislators said yesterday they're unlikely to support a leasing proposal without access to the proposals.
"We do need more facts," Argall said. "No legislator in his right mind will vote without the facts, and those facts have not been presented to us."
"The General Assembly won't support anything until we see the data," McCall said yesterday. And McCall said the "dialogue in our [Democratic] caucus has not been to sell or lease" the turnpike.
Geist, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, said he believed a lease could bring $30 billion and generate $3 billion a year, allowing the state to solve its transportation woes without raising gas taxes.
The lawmakers and other panelists yesterday described SEPTA as vital for the Philadelphia region's economy, but it remained unclear whether Harrisburg would rescue the transit agency from its latest financial crisis in time to prevent steep fare hikes and service cuts.
Without $100 million more in state aid, SEPTA proposes to raise fares by an average of 31 percent, cut service by 20 percent, and lay off 300 to 400 employees. SEPTA estimates that it would lose 20 percent of its riders, about 40 million passengers a year.
SEPTA's fiscal year starts July 1, and its board is scheduled to vote on the agency's new budget on May 24.
"Everybody in the legislature hates SEPTA for a different reason," including legislators from the Philadelphia region, said Geist, who described himself as a supporter of mass transit. "SEPTA is not the monster they're made out to be down here. It's crazy, the attitudes of people in the southeast toward SEPTA."
Geist said local governments will have to provide more money for SEPTA.
Pennsylvania transit agencies get much less of their money from local sources (11 percent) than do those in neighboring states (39 percent, on average), according to data from the Pennsylvania Economy League. That's largely because Pennsylvania, unlike the other states, does not permit regional authorities to levy taxes for transit.