Pennsylvania – Manhattan Style

Columnist : Albert Paschall

by Albert Paschall,
Senior Commentator, Lincoln Institute

What’s your favorite state managed four lane parking lot? Mine is Route 202 through Chester and Montgomery counties but there are many other contenders. Route 22 in the Lehigh Valley is one, 83 around Harrisburg is another and from what I hear the Parkway in Allegheny County can be the mother of standing still in traffic.

What qualifies as a state run straight line parking lot? Well pick your time to drive any say 10 mile stretch during rush hour. Fifteen minutes can be a bargain especially on the so-called expressways. Philadelphia’s infamous Schuylkill Expressway can match mid-town Manhattan’s congestion misery easily. It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to make the 20 mile trek from Valley Forge to the Liberty Bell.

An experienced highway engineer once told me that there are two problems with Pennsylvania’s roads. The first is the morons who drive on them. You know the drivers that have to weave in an out of traffic or rip up the shoulder of the road like crazed New York City cabbies on steroids. The other problem is the roads themselves. There are not enough of them and in most cases they aren’t wide enough to handle the load.

The moronic drivers will never change and in most cases neither will the roads.

Today the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation manages more than 40,000 miles of highway and owns some 25,000 bridges. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2006 report card on Pennsylvania’s infrastructure 25% of the state’s bridges are considered structurally deficient and another 18% are considered functionally obsolete. Recently, Overdrive, a national trucking magazine, ranks Pennsylvania’s roads the second worst in the nation. With the help of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana beat the Keystone State to the top of the list for the first time in a decade.

If Governor Rendell’s idea of selling the Pennsylvania Turnpike gains some traction and generates somewhere between $2 and $10 billion to fix roads and bridges can we build our way out of the traffic mess? Probably not.

Even with plans to streamline highway construction the factors that go into building new roads and bridges in Pennsylvania are often beyond control. The first is the planning. When local governments pay to have highway plans drafted they can easily get caught in the cycle of whether or not to fund engineering and environmental feasibility for a road that may never be built. The second phase is largely political. State Representatives and Senators fight fiercely for scarce highway dollars within PennDOT’s 10 districts. Through all of these processes new highways must weave their way through the transportation department’s 12-year plan. They often get through this technical process only to face local residential opposition. With the rebellion that is taking place nationally against government condemnation of personal property there’s little political will to go that route to gain right of way.

No we can’t build our way out of our four lane parking lots. And it seems when we try we often create a new bottleneck just down the road.

Governor Rendell has said that he might take a Cabinet post if the Democrats control the White House in 2009. His condition is that the new President would commit to a “Manhattan-style” project to cure our nation’s energy woes. The Manhattan Project was America’s intense and expensive drive to build an atomic bomb during World War II. The effort succeeded in forcing the Japanese to surrender and avoided a bloody invasion of that island. If the Governor wanted to, he could practice his project right now at home.

If we can’t build our way out of our traffic jams the only other alternative is getting cars off the roadways. Last year only 18% of the state’s transportation budget went to mass transit. Someday if Governor Rendell committed to a “Manhattan-style” project to fund and build convenient, competitive suburban mass transit the state’s four lane parking lots might move a little faster. The effort will need to be intense, it will be expensive and it will be a bloody political fight to get the funding.

Albert Paschall
Senior Fellow
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.