William M. Stout, P.E., believes the way to fix Pennsylvania’s $3.5 billion transportation funding woes is quite simple: toll Pennsylvania’s interstate highways, and add to the state’s gasoline tax.
He says the problem, however, is that few elected officials are willing to support those two proposals – even if they are in the best interest of the state.
“In my view, we could solve our country’s transportation funding problems by tolling all of our interstate highways,” Stout, who is Chairman and CEO of Harrisburg-based Gannett Fleming, said. “All that would happen is people would start to pay for a service they are already using. The highway system is no less a public utility than the electric grid, gas or water service or telecommunication facility. Why then should our highways be treated any differently?”
Stout said transportation funding has remained stagnant – or gone down – during the past 15 to 20 years while the gas tax in Pennsylvania has remained the same since 1997 and has not increased at the federal level since 1993. Add in the cost of inflation, and it is easy to see how Pennsylvania does not have the funding required to address its transportation infrastructure.
Further compounding the financial problem is cars are more fuel efficient, meaning less gas tax revenue coming into state coffers, and the economic downturn during the Great Recession translated into fewer people driving and less revenue, in general, for the state to fund programs like transportation.
“Even if fuel consumption stayed the same, and it hasn’t, we’d still only be collecting as much as we did back then,” Stout said. “While inflation has been somewhat tame, it is still there, and you’d be amazed at how quickly, at even 3 percent, that compounds over the years.”
Stout is quick to note an increase in transportation funding would translate into more business for his 97-year-old company, but he also emphasizes this issue is much deeper than economics. (Providing transportation solutions for the design, construction and maintenance of airports, bridges, highways, mass transit and rails are just a few of the services offered by the multi-diverse company.)
“As professional engineers, we take an oath to protect the public safety, health and welfare,” Stout said. “If we see a problem that is going to cause a public safety issue, then it is incumbent upon us to speak up about it.”
Last summer, the Corbett administration appointed a Transportation Funding Advisory Commission to study the funding issue and deliver a report with recommendations to the governor and state legislature.
The report states that more than 5,200 of 25,000 bridges statewide are “structurally deficient” (poor condition and need repair) and nearly 8,500 miles of highway of the 40,000 in the commonwealth rated “poor” in the International Roughness Index rating.
While the report recommends the state should “enable tolling authority on interstates within Pennsylvania, with toll revenue dedicated exclusively to the corridor from which it was collected,” it also says the commission “does not recommend tolling of any interstate.”
“No one is willing to say to the public straight up, ‘sorry, we hate to charge you more, but we haven’t been charging you enough for quite some time and we need to do so to keep up our roads and bridges to make sure they are efficient’,” Stout said. “I am convinced the only way we will get politicians to appropriate the money we need, is if the people get tired of poor roads and bridges or get tired of sitting in traffic or get tired of taking a detour because the bridge that is along a nice shortcut is closed.”
As the state and nation continues to grapple with finding the necessary revenue sources to address its transportation needs, Stout said Gannett Fleming will continue to build on its legacy as a global infrastructure firm focused on planning, design, technology, and construction management services.
Stout said his company’s long history is attributable to four traits that are part of its culture: know who you are; be a learning organization; try new and different things; and be financially conservative.
“Being a learning organization means we provide our employees the necessary tools and are up to date on the latest technologies, which dovetails with being thought leaders who are willing to try new and different things, but within budget,” Stout said. “I think, probably, that knowing who we are is the most significant factor of the four. Engineering is our roots and we do a lot of things other than engineering now, but we still adhere to our core business.”
Stout added that delivering excellent customer service, valuing its employees, being financially responsible, being good stewards of environmental resources, and being active within the community are all values that have keyed Gannett Fleming’s ability to survive and thrive for nearly 100 years.
For more information on Gannett Fleming, visit their website at gannettfleming.com.