Transportation delay stalemates P3 as well
The legislative stalemate over boosting state transportation funding is having a drag on a new state program to give private companies a greater role in tackling transportation-related projects.
State Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch told the Senate Transportation Committee last week that private firms are reluctant to propose major projects because they know the state doesn't have the money to put up on its end.
The Pennsylvania Public Private Partnership Board was established through a law enacted last year to consider projects that involve PennDOT and a private firm partnering together.
The so-called P3 concept has been debated in Harrisburg for nearly 20 years and in its most expansive application could lead someday to a private firm undertaking a large-scale highway construction project.
But so far the P3 board has been considering more peripheral applications such as having private firms operate the state-run 511 traffic information program, adopt-a-highway program and take on sponsorship rights at state welcome centers.
The board can either seek proposals from firms for a project it considers a good candidate for private sector involvement or ask companies to offer their "unsolicited" proposals.
The board is currently considering two unsolicited proposals to rent state transportation facilities as sites for wireless service providers and handle special hauling permits.
Schoch wants to use the P3 board as a springboard for an accelerated program to rebuild structurally deficient bridges. The idea involves bundling hundreds of bridge projects to be tackled by a private firm or having a private firm rebuild a major bridge carrying interstate traffic and charging a toll.
A private firm cannot self-finance such an expensive project entirely on its own and will expect some state dollars in the mix, Schoch said.
"I can't use it (program) unless I get additional revenue," he added.
The House and Senate are at odds over bills to generate up to an additional $2 billion to $2.5 billion annually for transportation needs. Schoch had anticipated final passage with the state budget and now prospects for legislative action this fall are uncertain.
Selected school aid
A statewide education advocacy group is taking aim at the distribution of $30 million in special aid to 21 school districts under the new state budget.
"The General Assembly and the governor have delivered education dollars in a way that cherry-picks a small group of school districts for additional funding, but ignores the remaining 479 school districts," said Rhonda Brownstein, executive director of the Education Law Center.
For example, Allentown, Reading, York City, Lancaster and Lebanon school districts split $14.5 million in special aid among them, based on having students who are English language learners.
Yet, 412 other school districts with students learning English didn't receive any special aid, the ELC said.
"It's a good sign that our legislative leaders have recognized there are different costs associated with different types of students," added Brownstein. "The students in these five districts should receive the necessary resources to meet state academic standards, but so should English language learners in all our other school districts."
ELC is calling for a state education funding formula that distributes aid to districts based on common elements such as a cost per student and is fair and transparent.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)