Act 44: Part 0: I DO NOT WANT your filthy money

To open the series on replacing Act 44, I feel I should put my cards on the table as to what my political goals are, as framing for readers. I am keeping liberal/conservative, Republican/Democratic politics out of this as much as I can, because I feel that they mostly contribute noise and bias versus signal, but they might creep in from time to time. My apologies in advance.

The topline summary is that this post is exactly what it says on the tin: I don’t want your money. I live in the city of Philadelphia, and if you live in the suburbs, or Pittsburgh, or Williamsport, I have no designs on taking your money to pay for any of the vital infrastructure that supports me and my ability to live in this city. If this sounds too good to be true, it might be; all (or rather, “all”) I ask is that I not have to pay for infrastructure where you live, unless I visit your neck of the woods and pay it in user fees.

I take this stance in large part because my choice to live here is more than a simple accident of convenience. I live in a city because I believe that cities, and especially large, dense cities like Philadelphia, are engines of growth and wealth creation for their inhabitants, and I’m willing to stake quite a lot on that proposition. I believe that my choice for where to live is an implicit bet that I can have a better quality of life here than anywhere else, for the same financial outlay, and that over time, despite the half-century of systematic sabotage, the normal order of wealth accumulating in cities will reassert itself. I recognize that these beliefs put me at odds with the median voter across Central and Northern PA, who see my city, and often all cities, as a vast poverty sink and welfare trough. I say let’s run the experiment out and see who wins out.

I think the vast majority of money that is collected by government in a jurisdiction for the purposes of building infrastructure should be spent in that jurisdiction. This is not a hard and fast ethical judgement; it’s a prudential judgement based on where American politics is today.

Too much of our political budgetary process has become a game of beggar thy neighbor. Every legislator who isn’t completely brain dead is looking to bring the most possible dollars (i.e. a disproportionate share of the whole) to their constituents. Thanks to the bizarre, unhealthy, incestuous, and byzantine cultures of our legislatures, both state and federal, this ends in one of two ways. Case One is that there’s a general consensus to just vote in favor of everybody’s wish list, with some kind of variably effective control algorithm to keep the big number at the end from reaching aleph-null, usually doing a poor job. Case Two, which we’ve seen in the U.S. House of Representatives since the 2010 election, is that a large minority bloc of self-styled “reformers”, have defected from the previous consensus to prevent the usual logrolling consensus, usually at the cost of all normal governance being brought to a screeching halt. We have never seen what happens when Case Two persists for an extended period of time, in America; we may be about to find out. Philadelphia is not particularly well-positioned to come out well in any event. However, there is a third way: if we set the amount to be spent at equal or very nearly equal to the amount collected from the dedicated stream, and prevent ourselves from deviating from that plan, we can remove the incentive to grab what can be grabbed, as well as the incentive to burn everything down in a fit of ideological pique, just to keep things in check. The number is what the number is, and it falls on the government of the day to set priorities within that framework.

The current SEPTA funding crisis arises simultaneously with a PennDOT funding crisis, for identical causes: the Feds didn’t let us toll I-80, and the Turnpike is now bled dry because we didn’t fix Act 44 to account for that. So the political solution to SEPTA’s woes will almost certainly be part of a package deal to fix both. (Unlike New York MTA, SEPTA’s territory does not cover a working majority of Pennsylvania’s legislative districts.) And it’s not as though we aren’t suffering due to PennDOT’s inability to fix bridges or fill potholes; SEPTA bus routes are often the first casualties of a bridge in disrepair in the region. But the fundamental truth is that SEPTA is far more cost-effective at providing transportation than PennDOT. SEPTA might be, in the words of the cynic, “Serious About Change: Nickels, Dimes, and Quarters Demanded”, but none of PennDOT’s roads or bridges (distinct from the Turnpike Commission’s roads) has ever made a thin dime in direct revenue.

In the case of Pennsylvania, I would like a transportation funding bill to contain an ironclad guarantee that no less than 90% and no more than 100% (three year rolling average) of the gas taxes, turnpike tolls, and whatever other revenue sources are decided upon by the Commonwealth for transportation funding in the Five Counties, be spent within these same Five Counties: primarily at PennDOT District Six, the Turnpike, or SEPTA, but also at other local transportation agencies. The rest of the commonwealth may remain unitary, or may divide itself up into similar self-funding regions, as it sees fit. Other than some strangeness near Pittsburgh, the PennDOT District Map provides a good division of the state with a manageable granularity.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania makes it very difficult to find out how much money it collects from any subset of itself by any method, and I’m still attempting to find precise numbers, but the Five Counties contribute more than a third of the Commonwealth’s GDP. And while I’m sure our share of contributed transportation taxes and fees is lower than that, for the same reason our output is so high (low car ownership + low gas consumption + existence of alternative modes of transportation = economic efficiency), it should still be that approximate order of magnitude. And I assure you, even after summing together every dollar spent by PennDOT District Six, or given to SEPTA as capital or operating support, Southeast PA does not get nearly the ~30% of transportation dollars it contributes.

So, to steal the eloquent words of someone I rather dislike, politically: I am not asking for a penny piece of Commonwealth money for Philadelphia. What I am asking is for a very large amount of our own money back. (I am willing to punctuate this point with a swung handbag, if it makes the reference any clearer to a slow-on-the-uptake General Assemblyman.)

If you, or hypothetical Harrisburg politicians, wonder exactly what differentiates this scenario from simply seceding from Pennsylvania altogether, it is this: I am perfectly willing to leave the setting of spending priorities in the hands of Harrisburg. Not that I expect many there outside the Southeast delegation to care about what we do here, often, but it is inevitable that the priorities of the Commonwealth will not precisely line up with the priorities of the four million residents of its Southeast. This will be especially true as projects that straddle our borders come up on the docket, for example, restoration of train service to Reading or Bethlehem. And I do believe we do owe the rest of our state something, just as I believe the rest of the state owes us something (starting with our money back). So I am willing to leave that executive power with PennDOT and General Assembly oversight, where it resides now. And with less time spent on acquiring the money, our representatives in Harrisburg might do a better job of paying attention to how it is spent.

With this basic starting principle established, I will be starting in on a series of posts exploring the various options available to Harrisburg to raise money: their pros and cons, and how likely they are to pull SEPTA and PennDOT out of the hole they find themselves in. All aboard…

Previous article in series “Act 44”: SEPTA’s capital doomsday plan looks like blackmail. It’s not, and that’s terrifying.

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