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PART 4: Transit transports dollars away from highways

One state lawmaker has made it his mission to stop the flow of money into failing systems

 

Dave Argall is the kind of guy you’d expect to be a state lawmaker.

The guy who would speak at the annual Chamber of Commerce dinner, or who flips pancakes at a charity breakfast. The kind of guy who maybe, just maybe, doesn’t even own a pair of jeans, who wears a suit just to read the newspaper in his easy chair.

He’s an Eagle Scout. A family man. He holds town hall meetings.

But David Argall is not simply a friendly guy, or another suit in the Statehouse – not by far.

Argall is a man with a mission … a mission centered on the amount of money the state of Pennsylvania spends on mass transit – and where that money comes from.

And David Argall’s fight to fix that situation goes to the very heart of the transportation funding debate in Pennsylvania.

The city of brotherly cash

Argall’s mission actually starts with another public official –Ed Rendell, governor of Pennsylvania and a former mayor of Philadelphia.

In November of 2004, the mass transit agency in Philadelphia was facing massive budget shortfalls. It wasn’t the first time in the financial hole for SEPTA – the South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported a $25 million transfer from highway funds to SEPTA and Pittsburgh’s mass transit agency in 2003 – even though some questioned the legality of the move at that time.

But the $63 million deficit widely reported in the media in November 2005 represented a huge problem for the agency, and for the state.

That month, several state lawmakers, quoted by The Inquirer, urged a then-reluctant Rendell to use highway funds to plug the hole in SEPTA’s budget. And shortly thereafter, Rendell caved in, calling for transfers.

By February 2005 – even though media outlets reported that the immediate funding crisis at the Philadelphia mass transit agency was over – the transfer of highway funds was well under way, and growing.

Rendell announced on Feb. 28, 2005, that he would transfer $412 million in federal highway funds to SEPTA and other mass transit agencies in the state. And even though the amount was massive, the governor’s office estimated it would only last two years.

The reaction of many lawmakers to the governor’s transfer of more than $400 million was summed up by one or Argall’s fellow state lawmakers, Rick Geist.

“Yeah,” Geist said. “He flushed it.”

Plenty of people shared those sentiments.

Rep. Argall said the action prompted considerable outcry outside of the state’s mass-transit-heavy metropolitan areas.

“Rural legislators and our constituents hit the roof; this had never been done before in Pennsylvania,” he said. “Essentially what the governor did was move federal dollars which in the past had been used only for roads and bridges in Pennsylvania, and diverted hundreds of millions of dollars to mass transit.”

Some were upset because the money was set to repair highways and bridges to serve rural areas.

Others were angry because once SEPTA had the funding in hand, it canceled staff cuts and fare increases – from $2 to $3 – that were scheduled to balance its budget.

It would have been the first fare increase since 2001.

Out of the first transfer from highway funds to mass transit – a $68 million payment – media outlets reported that more than $42 million, or 62 percent, went to just one mass transit agency – the South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, SEPTA.

And where did the rest of it go? According to those same media rep

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