Election report: Give us Transportation, Just Don't Make Us Pay for It

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(Wilkes-Barre, PA -- Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation)How’s President Obama’s plan to spend $50 billion on infrastructure selling?Judging by my interaction with musician Debbie Horoschock in Luzerne County, PA last week, not too well.

“It should all be fixed,” she told me, of the president’s proposal to spend money fixing rail, roads, and airports.So she thinks that would be a good thing to spend money on?“No.But they should be fixed.”How are they going to be fixed without money? “I don't know how they are going to be fixed without money. But we need money to fix the damn roads.”

Horuschock, who had long black hair and plays in a polka band, was out shopping on a Thursday afternoon in the Wilkes-Barre farmers market (by the way, when you get out of major cities, farmers markets are a good cheap place to get vegetables, not lightening rods for the young and well-to-do.)In 2008, like the majority of this hardscrabble county, she voted for Obama for President.But everyone she knows is out of work (this area has the highest unemployment in the state), and there’s just no money to pay for anything.

Listen to full interview with Horuschock:

(This report from Luzerne County is the first on how election themes are playing in swing counties.)

“Evidently they think there’s a money tree in the back of the White House,” retired bus driver Bob Osborne told me, who described Obama’s plan as “crazy.”“We’re already in a deficit in the trillions.They got to step back and wait until things catch up and then they can do things a little at a time.”Economists would argue that money is needed so things can “catch up,” but this is lost on voters like Osborne.Particularly when state governments are cutting back so much – it’s all government, distinctions between which branch aren’t made. “Cancelling other programs that people actually need to do this type of work. There are people who really need help from the programs they're cutting -- child welfare, single moms being able to get assistance.”

This area hurts – once coal was king (there’s still a major thoroughfare called “Coal Streeet,” and the old rail road tracks that were once all about getting coal to market.But coal disappeared.For a while, it was the garment industry.Now, people scratch, as one local once told me, “I’ll sell you pizza, if you sell me tires.”People like Osborne don’t have much, and don’t know people who do.

Osborne drove a municipal bus his entire working life, but as for funding transit –“there's another thing in the paper today about the transportation bill. They want to try to get money to help finance mass transit. Well you see what they're doing there, they're raising up everybody that drives they're raising up their licenses, their registration. It's like they keep looking for other things to take off the people to get the money to fund these other projects.”

Listen to full interview with Osborne:

Luzerne County’s a true swing county – Obama, Kerry, and Gore all won, but they just eked out victories.The area’s heavily catholic, Polish and Italian.They sell delicious pierogies at the farmers market.Covered in butter.

Only one person I met in Wilkes-Barre, Spanish teacher Maria Poggi, a Republican, thought spending for transportation was a good idea.“We live in Pennsylvania, and the roads are really bad.If you go someplace else the roads aren't as bad-- In other states where the roads are really nice, I have a lot of relatives in Florida and the roads are really nice and they're all out of jobs.”But still, she’d pay a toll for the interstate. “I guess maybe tolls, I know people put up a big fight about having route 80 tolled.”

Listen to full interview with Poggi:

Governor Ed Rendell had tried to get permission from the federal government to toll the interstate – an idea that was batted down.But it shows the struggle to keep roads in good repair, in an area that itself, is struggling.More on this soon.