Whether we like it or not, the $787 billion federal stimulus package has been signed into law. Now, the focus must be on using these dollars in the best possible manner.
As a state lawmaker, I had very little input into this massive new federal spending initiative that will be paid for through increased national debt. Some of the federal lawmakers who voted for or against the new law had little say about it due to the way in which the bill was hurriedly approved by Congress. Regardless, as the old saying goes, "It is what it is." We, as a nation, now have this mammoth federal spending law and the debate should revolve around how to use this money as responsibly as possible.
Spending priorities must be established. On the top of that list should be Pennsylvania's ailing infrastructure system. As a fiscal conservative, I have consistently fought against wasteful government spending on programs geared more toward special interests than the public interest. Using tax dollars to maintain our state's infrastructure system is a better long-term investment for you, the public - the taxpayers who will pay the bill.
Pennsylvania's vast network of roads and bridges, along with its water and sewer system, is the foundation of our civilization. They provide the basic essentials necessary to sustain healthy and productive communities.
Our roads and bridges are the arteries of our economy. What good is a job if there is no road to get there? What good is a product if customers can't get to it because the local bridge is out? And, perhaps scariest of all, what good is a fire truck or an ambulance if it can't get to an emergency site?
Unfortunately, Pennsylvania's intricate system of roads and bridges is in dire need of repair. The governor's Transportation Funding and Reform Commission spent two years quantifying the commonwealth's transportation infrastructure needs. The commission concluded in its 2006 report that nearly $2 billion a year in additional funding is needed just to meet existing and immediate needs.
To give you a glimpse of the enormity of this issue, consider these facts. Pennsylvania has approximately 121,000 miles of roadway. The commonwealth cares for approximately 1,285 miles of interstate highways. While the average life-span of a bridge is approximately 50 years, Pennsylvania has nearly 7,000 bridges that are more than 70 years old. Nearly one-quarter of the commonwealth's 25,300 state-owned bridges - 5,950 - have been deemed "structurally deficient."
Here in our own backyard, we have projects that deserve funding. After spending millions of dollars to complete the South Central Centre County Transportation Study, funding for the Potters Mill section of U.S. Route 322 was pulled off the table by the administration in Harrisburg. Too many lives have been lost and many more jeopardized along this winding two-lane stretch of road. Study after study has showed the significant increase in accidents when four-lane roads bottleneck down to two lanes. This is the final stretch of this important transportation route from Harrisburg to State College, and it should be completed.
In addition to road and bridge funding, the federal funds should be used to update Pennsylvania's water and sewer systems. In the year 2009, it is unconscionable to think that anyone should be deprived of clean drinking water in our advanced society. Similarly, families should be able to rest assured that when they pull the plug on their sink or flush their toilet, the water will be treated before it is returned to the water supply. That requires vast and often expensive sewer systems and waste water treatment plants, which must constantly be maintained and upgraded. This is a core function of government and must receive appropriate funding.
Remember, this stimulus package is ALL public tax dollars, and therefore should be used for public infrastructure projects - not to bail out political allies or private companies.
The time to debate the virtue of a federal recovery bill has come and gone. Now, we must focus on using the dollars appropriated on the projects that matter most. I believe the highest priority must be to maintain and upgrade Pennsylvania's vital transportation, water and sewer infrastructure.
Today's guest column was submitted by state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, who represents the residents of Pennsylvania's 171st Legislative District.