Pennsylvania Looks to Public-Private Partnerships to Solve Road Woes

Published February 21, 2011

Pennsylvania motorists tired of driving on pothole-strewn highways and sitting in traffic jams might see some relief coming their way. A bill written by State Rep. Rick Geist (R-Altoona) would allow private companies to set up partnerships, known as P3s, with the state.

Unlike leasing, which Indiana did with its toll road and Chicago did with its Skyway, P3s would keep roads firmly in the hands of the state.

“P3s are not about selling public assets,” said Geist.

The partnerships would provide much-needed funds to repair roads and bridges and could create toll roads in congested areas. For example, in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the partnership could result in the construction of elevated expressways that would charge a toll for motorists who use them to avoid sitting in rush hour traffic.

Billions More Needed
Last year a state advisory committee told the legislature Pennsylvania roads need $3.5 billion more in annual funding. According to a recent study released by the American Society of Civil Engineers, 38 percent of Pennsylvania’s roads are rated as fair or poor. Of the state’s nearly 23,000 bridges, 27 percent are considered structurally deficient and 17 percent are rated structurally obsolete.

However, the state’s budget deficit currently stands at nearly $4 billion, and Gov. Tom Corbett (R) has vowed not to raise taxes.

Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based think tank, said Geist’s legislation offers a “tremendous opportunity” for the state to begin addressing long-neglected stretches of highways and interstates, and it is a step towards addressing congestion.

Geist’s bill passed unanimously out of the state senate’s Transportation Committee in early February.

Turnpike Efforts Rebuffed
Gov. Ed Rendell (D) made several attempts during his two terms in office to address the issue, but he ran into numerous setbacks. Last year the federal government ruled Interstate 80, which runs east-west, could not be tolled unless all monies collected were used exclusively for its upkeep. Additionally, Rendell’s plan to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike created controversy and opposition from some state lawmakers.

Brouillette said some of them didn’t like the idea of the Turnpike being leased, which he says they viewed as encroachment into their “fiefdom.” One of the companies under consideration for the lease was a Spanish-owned company, which caused additional concerns from some who did not want a foreign business to be awarded the leasing rights.

“Since the lead effort [to repair the roads] was the Turnpike lease, that failure prevented the advancement of P3s,” Brouillette said.

P3s Have Bipartisan Support
Now that the dust has settled from the Turnpike incident, Brouillette said he believes there is enough bipartisan support in the legislature to pass Geist’s bill and Corbett will sign it.

“People on both sides of the aisle realize this is an important issue and that the time to do something is now. It’s not a partisan issue, but one of public safety,” he said.

Nick Baker ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.