Friday, August 03, 2007


(News-Herald, August 2) I wish I had paid more attention when the idea of an I-80 toll road first popped up, but I thought, frankly, that it was an idea that was so stupid its time would never come. I should have known better than to underestimate the Harrisburg brain trust.

We’ve seen this style of financial planning before. Smilin’ Ed’s school funding “reform” rests on a foundation of trainloads of money that we will collect, someday, from gambling. Probably. In the meantime, this unknown amount of possible future money is already earmarked for piddly property tax relief and some extra subsidizing for the schools in Philadelphia.

And most notably, he’s never tried to sell this plan on its merits, but has tried to put it across with increasingly rough displays of political gamesmanship.

The governor has been peddling variations of this same exercise in full contact crystal ball economics for a while now, but at Smilin’ Ed’s Used Legislation Lot, sales have been slow. Now here comes the I-80 toll proposal.

You would think that something this large, something that will impact one of the major cross-state corridors, would come buttressed with impact studies and thoughtful testimony from many of the people who will be affected. You would think that, but you would be wrong.

Instead, the toll proposal arrived at the last minute, a quickie addition to the spending plan that is the illegitimate child of this year’s Harrisburg-based budget fiasco. (And I don’t need to hear any more political bloviating about which party was to blame for a budget adopted seventeen days after the legally required deadline—in the spirit of bipartisanship, I blame them all.)

I don’t think these pieces of legislative are an unfortunate side-effect of the annual budget battle. I think they’re the purpose of it. The cynic in me suspects that it is now strategy to push the budget until it HAS to be passed, so that eleventh-hour addendums are carried through with no discussion or examination.

So here’s the plan. The state borrows a trainload of money and plans to pay it back later by taxing motorists on I-80. Some cars on the train stop all around the state; many go to Philly and the Burgh. Did you know that Allegheny County and the Greater Philly Area add up to 22% of the commonwealth population? The suits in Harrisburg never forget it.

Winners in this plan? Well, the lawyers and financiers who will get a nice commission putting together the train-sized loan. Mass transit mis-managers in Philly and the Burgh who win another holiday from cleaning up their acts.

Losers? Anybody want to spend $80 to travel across the state? Traffic will be deflected onto “free” roads, which means a route like 322 becomes more crowded, dangerous, and worn (good thing we’ll have all that money available for road repair). Shipping products into the area by truck will get more expensive. I don’t think tolling I-80 will endanger Pennsylvania’s reputation as a business-unfriendly state.

It’s an entertaining twist that Republican Representatives English and Peterson have used federal political muscle to interfere with state government. I’m pretty sure it’s not a standard conservative value to cheer federal power interfering with state functions. That said, I’m perfectly happy they did it.

It’s possible that using I-80 toll to finance debt has many positive aspects. It’s possible that upon hearing some really good reasons, I’ll decide that it’s not a stupid idea.

But it’s not simply that I think the idea is stupid. It’s that I haven’t heard any explanation about it. I haven’t heard what anybody knowledgeable has to say about the impact of such a far-reaching change. And my elected officials owe me that at the very least.

Even now, when the governor could be responding to Reps English and Peterson with a documented, fact-based, well-reasoned presentation about why this is such a good idea, instead of data and charts, we’re getting more political posturing and statements on the order of, “It is TOO a good idea, and these guys are just big doodyheads.” That and a petulant, “Well, then fine, I’ll just pull out that other plan that nobody liked.”

You would think that after the last election the folks in Harrisburg would have learned that Pennsylvanians would prefer to have important decisions made in the daylight, in full view. The Governor wants a toll road? Well, I want an explanation of why it’s good policy to drain more blood from our region to help feed Philly again. I’m waiting.

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