By Valerie A. Arkoosh
In our hyperpartisan times, there is one issue that just about everyone agrees upon: the need for government to invest in roads, bridges, and infrastructure. This is an urgent problem in Pennsylvania - in 2014, the commonwealth's bridges received a D-plus rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Montgomery County, where I serve as one of three county commissioners, owns 133 bridges. Four years ago, as a result of years of neglect and deferred maintenance by prior administrations, nearly half of those bridges were deemed structurally deficient.
While most of these bridges are safe for the time being, they require significant rehabilitation or replacement. These county-owned bridges are either closed (13) or have had weight restrictions imposed, forcing some fire trucks, school buses, and trash haulers to change their routes.
County bridges and roads are lifelines for our commuters and local businesses. Just ask the residents who live near the Arcola Road bridge. That bridge, long neglected by previous county leadership, needed to be closed for three years. The disruption to commuters and businesses was incredible and it probably could have been prevented or minimized if the bridge had received proper care and maintenance.
As a commissioner, I believe maintaining and repairing our county-owned infrastructure is one of our government's core obligations. So how do we pay for it?
To date, the county has been borrowing money to finance these infrastructure projects. The principal and interest on this long-term debt is paid from our general fund, which is primarily supported by property taxes.
In the last few years we've been able to make the necessary repairs on seven bridges and are working on others. But many are still not currently in our budget. Allocating resources to tackle these bridges would require additional borrowing. The longer we wait, the greater the chance that these bridges will become further weight-restricted or closed and the greater the cost.
An alternative funding solution, however, is now available. Act 89, passed with a bipartisan vote by the Pennsylvania legislature in 2013, offers a dedicated revenue stream to counties - through a $5 increase in the annual vehicle registration fee - to support roads and bridges. So far 12 counties, including Philadelphia, Bucks, and Chester, have passed ordinances increasing registration fees. Montgomery County is considering such an ordinance, and a vote on it is scheduled for today.
The fee - with 100 percent of the revenue staying in Montgomery County - will speed up bridge and road repairs and maintenance. In addition, through grants in partnership with the county, funds would be available to local municipalities for their transportation priorities. We have the broad support across the county for the fee, with the Montgomery County Association of Township Officials passing a resolution strongly in favor.
I am going to vote to support this ordinance because the citizens of Montgomery County did not elect me to simply give lip service to an infrastructure commitment. We actually need to make sure we have the funds to pay for the repairs, maintenance and, if necessary, replacement of failing bridges and roads - and we can't afford further delay.
I believe this fee is the most fiscally responsible way to fund infrastructure investment because it would provide a dedicated revenue stream that would save the county and taxpayers money in the long term. We know from experience that it is better to pay now to maintain or replace our important bridges, instead of deferring costs.
As Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, has argued: "The U.S. can and should invest more in its public infrastructure. This would be good economic policy for both the near and long term." I couldn't agree more. Transportation infrastructure, notably bridge repair and replacement, is a key priority in the county's capital plan for the next decade.
For 42 cents a month, Montgomery County drivers will be contributing to safe roads and bridges in their communities. The fee is expected to generate about $3.25 million dollars a year in dedicated revenue to the county - money that can be leveraged to speed up bridge and road repairs and improvements.
Repairing our infrastructure is too critical to public safety, local businesses, and the quality of life in Montgomery County to inject politics - particularly when the solution being offered has received broad bipartisan support.
For too many years, county leaders were not forward-thinking and residents paid the price. We cannot allow that to continue.