When It Comes to Transpo Spending: Those Who Can’t Do... Study

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Boy studying, from the album: Miscellaneous. Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine, ca. 1924. From the National Child Labor Committee Collection at the Library of Congress

(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation) I thought there had been some Internet hiccup when I saw a news item saying that the Governor of Pennsylvania had ordered the formation of a Transportation Funding Advisory Commission. Surely this was an article from five years ago, I thought, before then-Governor Ed Rendell turned over every possible rock looking for transportation money. From 2007 through 2010, of course, Rendell tried to privatize the Pennsylania Turnpike, tried (twice) to toll Interstate 80, proposed raising the state gas tax, and suggested a transportation tax on oil profits—all unsuccessful.

But no. Pennsylvania's new governor, Tom Corbett, is creating a new commission, which he has ordered to give a final report by August 1. The commission’s recommendations, I’ll bet you a shiny quarter, will be to do many or all of the things Rendell already tried. A brand new report from the longstanding Pennsylvania State Transportation Advisory Committee, not to be confused with the new Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, already hints at all of these same funding sources: tolls, public-private partnerships, increased taxes and fees, and eventually a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) charge.

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Reports suggesting some combination of those solutions were already easy to find. There was, for instance, the January 2008 report of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. Then, a year later, there were the findings of the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission. Most recently, the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform joined the chorus arguing for an increase in the federal gas tax (that choir consisting largely of think tanks and other parties who won’t actually have to vote on such a measure).

But the announcement of yet another study group in Pennsylvania, where an aggressive Governor spent an entire term beating his head against the walls of his state legislature and the toll-wary USDOT, feels like a particularly telling case of hemming and hawing. And it’s by no means an anomaly.

In Indiana, Governor (and potential Republican presidential candidate) Mitch Daniels seems to be punting on funding the last stretch of Interstate 69, the controversial “NAFTA Highway” that he has pushed as a cornerstone of his legacy. The state legislature passed a bill last week giving the governor and INDOT the power to enter into public-private partnerships for toll roads, but rather than wield that power now and risk a backlash, Daniels is allowing—you guessed it—a study committee to explore the various funding options. That committee will take its time: two years, just long enough for Daniels to clear out of the statehouse.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.