Finding Common Ground for Balanced Transportation in Pennsylvania

Posted 09/16/14 by Leeann Sinpatanasakul in Policy, Taking Action

Photo CC Stephen Rees via Flickr

Trail advocates, highway construction groups, public transit, local government, chambers of commerce, farming organizations, tourism promoters and health groups: What do these strange bedfellows have in common? Answer: an interest in transportation that strengthens the economy, connects people to where they want to go and gives them choices for how they want to get there.

Today, the federal government and many states around the country are facing the same problem: our transportation infrastructure is crumbling, and to fix it, systems are in need of smart, long-term funding sources. With political gridlock at every level, finding a solution can be difficult. Last year, Pennsylvania proved to be a leader with a unique solution to this common problem. Enter: the Keystone Transportation Funding Coalition.

Founded several years earlier by transportation policy veteran George Wolff, the Keystone Coalition comprises more than 100 advocacy groups from seemingly disparate sectors but with an interest in making transportation work for Pennsylvanians. 

The members of the Keystone Coalition—from highway construction businesses to chambers of commerce to trail groups and more—pledged that they would present a united front on transportation funding and stay united in the face of expected attempts by legislators to turn one group against the other and resort to more political gridlock. And when legislators tried to do just that? The Coalition didn't bite.

What were the keys to the group's success? "Unity and trust," says Wolff. Those were also their biggest challenges. "We were either going to sink or swim."

At the first meeting of the coalition, Wolff recalls that highway interests sat on one side of the table, public transit on the opposite and local government groups—who had previously been left out of discussions—at the head. "You could almost feel the electricity crackling," says Wolff. Later, biking and walking groups, as well as health organizations, would be added. 

Tensions ran high for the first few meetings, but an early breakthrough moment kept the coalition together. During one moment, Wolff pointed out, "What's the point in having a bus system if there's no road to drive it on?" Slowly, the members began to realize that the different transportation modes depended on each other. Farmers needed roads to ship goods to market, roads couldn't handle commuter capacity, commuters needed public transit, and public transit needed places like trails so that people could safely walk or bike to a station. Members also realized they were working toward the same goal of an interconnected transportation system that works for Pennsylvanians, just from different angles.

In politics, the best tool for success is cooperation, but it is often difficult to achieve. The belief in a balanced transportation system, and the genuine trust and good faith between members, kept the Keystone Coalition going.

The result? In November 2013, the Pennsylvania legislature passed Act 89, a five-year transportation funding package for roads, rail, airports, seaports, transit, and even walking and biking. It includes $2 million per year for walking and biking to build trails, sidewalks, bike lanes and more, and $144 million in competitive funds that walking and biking projects can apply for. Most importantly, it represents a balanced transportation system that provides real choices for travelers.

With federal transportation funding operating on a short-term "fix," and states unable to plan for long-term projects because of the uncertainty, it is clear that transportation funding needs to be addressed, and soon. Wolff hopes that other states, and Washington, D.C., can follow Pennsylvania's lead and learn from the success of the Keystone Coalition. Finding common ground, working together and staying united will certainly be needed to overcome Washington's political gridlock in the months ahead.

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