Transportation Policy

Pennsylvania's Fuel Tax Is Supposed To Fund Bridge Repair. Billions Went to Cops Instead.

Pennsylvania has one of the nation's highest gas taxes, but those user fees haven't helped fix the state's poor roads and bridges.

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Pittsburgh's Fern Hollow Bridge, which collapsed on Friday morning just hours before President Joe Biden visited the city to tout the passage of a $1.2 trillion federal funding package, provides an apt lesson about the real problem stalking America's infrastructure.

It's not a lack of money; it's too much politics.

That's not the lesson Biden offered, of course. Speaking later on Friday near the collapsed bridge, Biden said it was all about the money. "This is the first time in the country's history we dedicated a national program to repair and upgrade bridges—and it's about time," Biden said, before promising that the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure package would provide enough funding to fix all of America's 43,000 structurally deficient bridges. "We're sending the money," he said.

That's somewhat dubious—the Fern Hollow Bridge had been rated in "poor condition" for years, but it was not on the list of projects due to be funded by the new infrastructure bill.

But the more serious issue here has nothing to do with the size of Biden's infrastructure package. It has to do with poor budgeting and decision making by state and local governments, which are responsible for most roads and bridges in America.

Pennsylvania is a perfect example. Drivers in the state pay the nation's third-highest gasoline tax (a tad over $0.58 cents per gallon), yet Pennsylvania's roads are notorious for being in terrible shape and the state has the second-most structurally deficient bridges in the country.

How is that possible? Probably because state officials have done a poor job of setting priorities. A 2019 audit found that $4.2 billion in gas tax revenue which could have been used to repair roads and bridges had been siphoned off over six years to fund the state police.

"There's an inherent deal," state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale told WHYY, a Philadelphia-based public radio station, at the time. "You're going to have this high gas tax, but it's going to go to fund roads and bridges. And now when they find out it's not happening, I think that gets people upset."

That's a lot of money that wasn't used in the intended manner. The New York Times reported this week that fixing all the structural issues with bridges in Pittsburgh would cost an estimated $458 million—a big price tag, but only about one-tenth of what the state redirected toward the state police in the years before DePasquale's audit.

The city of Pittsburgh is guilty too. As Randal O'Toole points out in his Antiplanner blog, the city's Department of Mobility and Infrastructure has spent about $6 million annually on bridge repair and maintenance projects over the past five years. But it has spent, on average, more than $8 million annually on so-called "complete streets" projects—like bike lanes, sidewalks, beautification projects, and the like.

"The 2017 inspection of the Fern Hollow bridge estimated that restoring the bridge to good condition would cost $1.5 million," O'Toole notes. "Instead of fixing it, the city spent more than $1.3 million in bike-sharing last year."

But you won't hear that from the infrastructure experts and politicians being quoted in the aftermath of another preventable near-tragedy. For them, it's always about needing more money. "Ultimately, it's a resource problem," Kent Harries, an engineering professor at the University of Pittsburgh, told TribLive. "I hope it's a wake-up call to the nation that we need to make these infrastructure investments," Lt. Gov. John Fetterman told a local radio station from the scene of the collapse.

Ultimately, the federal infrastructure package suffers from the same sort of misplaced priorities. Yes, there is $40 billion for bridge projects. But Biden's much-ballyhooed spending plan will direct $156 billion to mass transit agencies, $40 billion for green energy grants (think Solyndra), and $48 billion to subsidize public broadband to compete with existing internet providers, and $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations. As nice as items like that might be, every dollar spent on them is a dollar that can't be used to prevent the next bridge collapse.

As always, effective governance is mostly a matter of budgeting well—and budgeting is really nothing more than priority setting, given that public resources are not unlimited. Pennsylvania has done a poor job of setting priorities, as the sorry state of the state's roads and bridges can attest. More federal money for infrastructure won't address that underlying problem.