With friends like these

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Want a preview of Hell?  Get a road job.  Collecting tolls on the turnpike gets pretty hot,  waving stop-and-go flags at PennDOT highway construction sites will get you acquainted with the nastiest souls and, if frustration is the ticket to the nether regions, sign on as the State Secretary of Transportation.  Running PennDOT is like becoming the ultimate construction flagman.

      Nevertheless, Pennsylvania’s Transportation Secretary, Bradley Mallory, seems to be pretty good at waving down the right projects.  Cutting a deal with the road demons that seem to possess every delegate to the State House, who all demand a couple of highway projects for the folks back home in every budget cycle, is in the details.  While Mallory, and his boss Tom Ridge, aren’t saints when it comes to highway patronage, by and large there’s more science than political skullduggery in setting the priorities of highway spending.

       Could be that faced with the devil they knew they had no choice.  Governor Casey’s first term was paved with patronage.  There was plenty of political money until ’93 when the Federal Environmental Protection Agency threatened to burn Pennsylvania’s highway funds in disputes over mandates and Ridge got handed the hot first year prospect of increasing gas taxes to fix our roads.

       In Pennsylvania idling cars, stuck in traffic on outdated highways, are to air quality what industrial smokestacks used to be.  With the big environmental guns targeting the state Ridge took the risk of pushing the general assembly to raise the gas tax adding an additional $400. million to bring the state to three successive years of billion dollar highway construction spending.  The neat trick was managing that money against the political wish lists that can jam-up projects on the state’s 45,000 miles of roads.  The priorities were wrangled out and the big money ended up on Route 202 in suburban Philadelphia, Routes 22/322 along the Susquehanna River in Dauphin County, the Mon-Fayette Expressway in Fayette County and the long-delayed Exit 7 extension on Interstate 81 in Cumberland County.  The four projects alone represent only about .016% of the state’s highway system yet they support a choking average of more than 14 million vehicle miles a day.

      Which makes last week’s unholy alliance of the Friends Of The Earth and Taxpayers For Common Sense, claiming to be aligned with Vice President Gore’s anti-sprawl agenda, appear to be a deal with the devil.  At a splashy press conference the groups called the four Pennsylvania road projects a waste of taxpayer’s money.

     Friends Of The Earth and Taxpayers For Common Sense are the drive-by shooters in the back alleys of Washington’s public policy establishment.  Promoted by former Beatle Paul McCartney, Friends Of The Earth looks for the hit parade of environmental issues and drive the headlines but never really accomplish anything.  Desperately trying to get into the news, Taxpayers For Common Sense hitched a ride on this one hoping that this third rate gambit would put them on the frugal side of the environmental angels that are battling the sprawl that these highway projects allegedly create.  “Taxpayer money is being hijacked for unneeded roads that cause sprawl, damage the environment and hurt local communities,” said Ralph DeGennaro, Executive Director of Taxpayers For Common Sense, “it’s not too late to kill these roads.”

Fact is its almost too late to start them.  Between right of way acquisition, environmental studies, local government oversight and preservation issues getting road construction started usually takes 12 years.  Expanded highways designed to minimize traffic congestion by keeping more cars moving, backed by the state’s financial commitment to mass-transit is the surest way to diminish auto discharges into the air we breathe.  Killing these roads make no sense and with friends like this Mother Earth could be in serious trouble.

Responsible environmentalists put forward balanced solutions, true advocates of Federal reform attack the root causes of Washington’s daily intrusions into our lives, not the result.  The drive-by headline hitters hopefully will get lost in the responsible traffic, some day understanding that they are on the road that is paved with good intentions and keep right on going until they get to the end of it.