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A Victory for the Free Market in Pittsburgh

The State Legislature has finally ended the union monopoly on transit in Allegheny County.

Legislation eliminating the state-mandated monopoly on transit services in Allegheny County is on its way to the governor for signature, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) announced today.

The legislation, House Bill 10, will allow private companies or other regional transit systems to deliver transportation services in Allegheny County, while still allowing the Port Authority of Allegheny County to provide services. Under current state law, the Port Authority has the exclusive rights over transit within the county.

By allowing other transportation agencies to offer services, the people will be far better served, Turzai said. Eliminating the transit monopoly is a win-win for taxpayers and transit riders.

For those of you who haven’t been following it, the Port Authority in Allegheny County is way broke. Not just financially, although it is truly screwed up in that respect, but they can’t even provide adequate service when they know they need to. It is still one of the most expensive transit systems in the country, is overly unionized, and, in generally, has long outlived its usefulness.

Maybe now we’ll be able to get a bus that goes where we want to for a price we’re willing to pay.

June 5, 2012 at 9:33 pm Comment (1)

I Was Wrong To Question The DRPA

 Later this year, it is possible — even probable — that the following individuals will all be in jail: former powerhouse Senator Vince Fumo, former House Speakers John Perzel and Bill DeWeese, Senators Jane Orie and Bob Mellow (both of Leadership), and former Representatives Mike Veon and Brett Feese (also from Leadership). 

 

On the one hand, seeing corrupt politicians brought to justice is a good thing, as is all the money they are giving back to taxpayers via forfeited pensions.

 

But there is a downside. While such offenders should obviously be prosecuted, people’s cynicism toward their government seems to be at an all-time high. Why? Because the rampant corruption still occurring — the kind that directly affects people — just isn’t being tackled seriously. 

 

Despite elements of corruption — both institutional and criminal — so apparent that even a law student could successfully prosecute the violators, nothing seems to get done. 

 

Worst of all are the pols who campaign as straight-shooting, law-and-order reformers, hell-bent on rooting out corruption, yet do nothing of the kind when elected.  Sadly, they often end up as corrupt as those they challenged.  The status quo remains intact, and, save for a bit of window dressing “reforms” here and there, it’s Business As Usual.

 

Nowhere is that more apparent that the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA), one of the most powerful — and corrupt — organizations in the entire nation.

 

But wait! Could there be hope after all of reforming the Authority?  Sources say that a report from the New Jersey Comptroller’s Office will be released soon (possibly Monday), and that a gag order has been placed on its contents by the DRPA’s Chairman, Pennsylvania Governor Tim Corbett.  Sounds so cloak-and-dagger that it’s just possible to think maybe, just maybe, this might finally be the time when the bums are kicked out, replaced by honest folks with only one objective: responsible stewardship of the toll payers’ money.

 

After all, on the other side of the river we have firebrand Governor Chris Christie, who, like Corbett, is a former prosecutor.

 

So will this be the day we’ve been waiting for?

 

Fat chance. Very fat.

 

*****

 

Freindly Fire (FF) has been the longest-serving media voice taking on the DRPA and the heavyweights involved with the Authority (Ed Rendell, Jon Corzine, the Ballard Spahr law firm, CEO John Matheussen, and past and present Boards, to name just a few). For much of the past four years, FF has been alone in its quest to upend the corrupt regime, eliminate mammoth conflicts of interest, fire double-dipping executives, and bring accountability to the agency.  Joined by FOX 29 in 2010— and pretty much only FOX 29 — a number of the above objectives were met.  DRPA execs were scrambling (some were canned), a few reforms were instituted (though mostly toothless), criminal investigations were launched, and both new governors promised swift and decisive action.

 

But then it all fell off a cliff.

 

While we have moved in the right direction, it is not nearly good enough.  Quite frankly, this report will probably accomplish nothing.  Sure, there will be press conferences with harsh warnings from Corbett and Christie for the DRPA to shape up, Board members will say all the right things, and taxpayer and reform groups will fall for the same empty promises. And you know what will happen?

 

Absolutely nothing.

 

Therefore, it seems appropriate to take a new position regarding all things DRPA — I am apologizing.  In retrospect, I have been wrong across the board these past few years, and it is only fitting to publicly eat crow for those errors. I am man-enough to admit my mistakes.  Here are some of the most substantial:

 

1) I was wrong to think Tom Corbett would make good on his promise to clean house upon becoming Governor (and making himself DRPA Chair).  Instead, he chose to appoint hacks, lawyers (redundant?), former union officials, large-dollar political contributors and lobbyists to the Board, without so much as one reformer.

 

2) I was wrong to think Christie would use his office as a bully pulpit to demand the Jersey Board members (whom he can’t replace until their terms expire) to fire CEO Matheussen, under whose “leadership” the DRPA has become synonymous with “corrupt.”  This is a CEO, by the way, who has been working without a contract for years, makes more than either governor, and stands to pocket a six-figure sum of toll payer money in accumulated sick/vacation days when he finally leaves. Yet he remains because there has been no political will to remove him.

 

3) I was wrong to think the other media outlets (except FOX 29) would jump on board, exposing the DRPA for what it really is.  And I was wrong to assume they were capable of doing so in the first place, despite time and again giving them an exact roadmap for investigative articles.

 

4) I was wrong to think the Philadelphia Inquirer — both under former publisher Brian Tierney’s failed leadership and the current sell-out ownership — would cover the DRPA as a media watchdog should.  Could such inaction have been caused by Tierney begging Rendell for a taxpayer-bailout of the paper? And let’s not forget that, while R.endell was in power, the acting Board Chairman was John Estey of Ballard Spahr — Rendell’s former Chief of Staff, a major Rendell fundraiser, and a fellow member of Rendell’s law firm.  So obviously, I was wrong to even consider the possibility that the paper could objectively cover the matter.

 

5) I was wrong to expect that over $35 million in “economic development” money —codespeak for political slush funds used for everything under the sun —except the bridges — would be spent on 1) the long-overdue re-decking of the Walt Whitman Bridge; 2) helping offset yet another toll increase; or 3) paying down some of the DRPA’s enormous debt. 

 

And I would be wrong to end my list here, since there is so much more.  So check back next week for even more wrongs.  And who know?  Maybe all these wrongs might somehow make it right…

 

 

An accredited member of the media, Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television/radio commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com  His self-syndicated model has earned him the largest cumulative media voice in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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March 27, 2012 at 2:01 pm Comments (0)

Don’t Blame Sunoco, ConocoPhillips, Or Unions For Refinery Shutdowns

 

Second in a series on how retooled refineries can save jobs and revitalize manufacturing

“Thank you for trying to get those who should understand the urgency of energy independence, jobs, and our future…to do so.  (We are) loading up the SUV almost every day to give away household items to Neighborhood Services and friends…and preparing to relocate if necessary.  You are right… finding middle class wages here in Pennsylvania is challenging if not impossible.  The blood, sweat and tears of years planning and building our dream home only to sell it in a bad housing market is like adding salt to the wound….”

This heartbreaking message was sent by a distraught wife of a 19-year Sunoco refinery worker, as that company’s two refineries (Philadelphia and Marcus Hook) are slated for closing, as is the ConocoPhillips refinery in Trainer, Delaware County, if no buyers are found.  Making the sin mortal, there are reports that the ConocoPhillips plant might be dismantled, shipped overseas, and resurrected in a foreign—potentially adversarial — country.  But this is nothing new, as America’s abandonment of its manufacturing base has often included shipping entire facilities overseas for the benefit of our competitors.

Can it be reversed? Is it possible not only to save these refinery jobs but at the same time create a rebirth of American manufacturing — mandatory for the nation’s future since no country has ever survived without an industrial base?  Many “experts” will arrogantly claim “no,” that America can’t compete with Chinese labor costs, and smugly proclaim that manufacturing is passé anyway— unnecessary in a modern 21st century economy.

Unfortunately, the wrong people here are losing their jobs.  The backbone of America shouldn’t be facing the unemployment lines. The so-called experts, including the politicians from both Parties who got us into this mess, should be the ones getting canned. 

(See Freindly Fire’s Sunoco Refinery Part One:)

http://blogs.phillymag.com/the_philly_post/2011/12/21/save-philadelphias-sunoco-refinery-jobs/

But if we are to save jobs by retooling the refineries to process God’s gift to Pennsylvania (and the nation) — Marcellus Shale natural gas — it is imperative to stop the blame game and halt the tendency, while natural in a time of such high emotion,  to conveniently point fingers at whatever “boogeyman of the day” caused this unfortunate situation. Likewise, the fly-by-night ideas proposed by some shortsighted politicians must be seen for what they are: either clueless suggestions or a naked pandering for votes.

*****

Who Didn’t Cause The Problem

Sunoco

A million dollars is a lot of money — who hasn’t thought about having that much cash? You could do a lot with a mil per year, even more if you made that per week, and would be king of the world if you raked in seven figures per day, especially if that that was the case for three straight years. Life would be sweet — unless, of course, you happened to be in the sweet crude oil refining business in a deteriorating market.

So let’s be consistent. If making a million a day is desirable, losing that amount on a daily basis would be, in professional financial nomenclature, very, very bad. Common sense tells us that anyone losing a million a day for three years would do everything possible to stop the hemorrhaging. Welcome to Sunoco’s plight.

Ask any student unschooled in economics what the primary objective of business is, and he will invariably answer, “to make money.” Wrong.  Making money is easy.  Earning a profit by taking in more than you spend — the correct answer — is the hard part.

Despite the misguided “Occupy” mentality that profits are nothing more than gluttonous greed, the truth is quite different. They are necessary to expand operations, hire more personnel, pay salaries and benefits, and contribute to the overall health of a company —and the entire economy.  (Not that Wall Street greed doesn’t exist in numerous other forms, much of which should be regulated/outlawed, but that is another column).

Sunoco and ConocoPhillips are not in the “business” of losing money, and their past profits and payouts to shareholders are completely irrelevant to the fact that the outlook for the refining business is bleak.  They are under no moral, ethical or financial obligation to keep the doors open. Keeping people employed inefficiently—READ: subsidized — in a business with no possibility of profit is anathema to the Free Market and would eventually collapse the entire entity.  This is not speculation but economic certainty.

And if you want to see what happens when this course is recklessly pursued, pull up a chair because you’re in luck. You have a ringside seat watching such an implosion in action: the unsustainable economic policies of the United States Government.

It is also important to note that in 2009, Sunoco announced a significant worker layoff in an attempt to improve company competitiveness — and all were white collar, with no unionized personnel getting pink slips.  Closing the refineries is anything but anti-labor.

Unions

The refinery shutdowns have nothing to do with “greedy unions sucking too much money” from the companies’ bottom lines, as some critics of organized labor incorrectly state. Many of those in refinery operations are highly- skilled union workers who have made a solid living over the last several decades. But a look at the market conditions shows such a minefield ahead for the companies that no amount of concessions would come close to solving the problem.  In the big picture, the significant obstacles facing Sunoco and ConocoPhillips are infinitely greater than any “high” labor costs associated with operating the refineries.

Just like “evil empire” rich oil company executives make inviting targets for blame, so do “pillaging” unions who “want more for doing less.” Is either side perfect? Of course not, since there is no such thing. But while both make good scapegoats, it is simply counterproductive to continually throw darts at them.  Insults don’t solve problems. Strategic vision and genuine partnerships do. The only thing that matters is solving the problem — and quickly. 

Obama

Some find it convenient to blame the President for everything from high gas prices to their children getting a bad test grade. While he certainly has his faults, he extended his hand to the Republicans on the single most important issue of our time — moving America towards energy independence.  If some of his suggestions had been enacted (which, in reality, are part of the Republican platform), they would have quite possibly made the refining outlook much brighter for Sunoco and Conoco, and the shutdowns may not have occurred.

And the GOP response? No bills were introduced, and they absolutely refused to work with the President, with many stating that “he didn’t really believe what he was saying.”  What a brilliant, mature response.

For the disbelievers who need proof, just watch the President’s 2010 State of the Union speech, when, in front of the entire nation, he urged Congress to expand our offshore drilling ventures, and freed up millions of acres of coastal water for exploration and development. In addition, he called for an increase in nuclear power plants across America and pursued loan guarantees for new facilities (even one year later in light of the Japanese disaster).

Which was interesting, not only because he went against one of his strongest constituencies (the environmental lobby), but also because Obama’s move threw a wrench in the conspiracy that he was a closet Muslim who wanted to weaken America. Pushing for energy independence would be the polar opposite way to achieve that goal.

Granted, Obama has not been stellar in following up on his domestic drilling initiatives after the BP spill, and has yet to authorize the critical Keystone XL Pipeline project, but those shortcomings pale in comparison to the other Party’s inaction.

What did oilman George W. Bush or his Halliburton-affiliated sidekick Dick Cheyney do to increase domestic production? Zero.

Or the patriarch of the Bush family, George Herbert Walker Bush?  Well, it was the elder Bush who signed the moratorium on offshore drilling. His son W. left it in place for seven years, despite having sizable majorities in both Houses of Congress. Only after fuel costs skyrocketed to over $4.50 per gallon in 2008 did he call for the lifting of the moratorium. But it was too little, too late. And it never happened.

What could have prevented those crippling spikes at the pump? Offshore drilling — both off the continental shelves and in ANWR (the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) — and the construction of new refineries, given that the last one was built in 1976.

And what better time to have pushed it through than right after the September 11 attacks. In addition to having a Republican congress and nearly 100 percent of the nation behind him, Bush had the world’s goodwill in his corner.

Instead, this nation’s reliance on foreign oil — which is a nice way of saying we are pumping billions of petro dollars into the coffers of some who are hell bent on destroying us — has only increased.

And this week, gas hit another all-time high for this time of year.

Both Parties are guilty of forsaking America’s security and economic well-being. It is only right that they atone by eliminating the red tape, bureaucracy and onerous regulations placed upon the energy industry, as well as rescind the economy-killing taxes on fuel.  Those steps would make it infinitely more palatable for entrepreneurs to convert the refineries, keeping those strategic assets and jobs exactly where they belong: in America.

 

Parts Three and Four will detail solutions for how refinery conversions can jumpstart the economy through specific uses of dry and wet natural gas — while NOT making Philadelphia a port for Liquefied Natural Gas. 

 

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television/radio commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com  His self-syndicated model has earned him the largest cumulative media voice in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

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January 18, 2012 at 1:09 pm Comment (1)

Texas Grows On Pennsylvania’s Woes

In what amounted to a complete non-surprise, Pennsylvania was just ranked near the economic bottom of the nation. Forty-third, to be exact.

Why the dismal showing for what was once the major industrial powerhouse, not just of the country, but the world?

More than anything else, crushing taxes and a hostile business climate.

Shackled with the nation’s second-highest corporate income tax, it is also 15th in personal income tax, 30th in property tax burden, and number one in estate and inheritance tax.  Those figures are bleak enough in their own right, but because Pennsylvania rolls over to organized labor and trial lawyers, it comes in dead-last last in labor competitiveness.

The result?  A mass exodus.  Businesses, and the Pennsylvanians who work for them, flee the state for the greener pastures of employer-friendly states.

And as our children and grandchildren — indeed our future — leave, so too does our political clout.

In the latest census, Pennsylvania has lost yet another electoral vote, giving it just 20. But again, this is nothing new, as the state has seen at least two electoral votes disappear in every census since 1960.

Pennsylvania is not alone in its demise.  Neighboring states such as Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey and Illinois are in the same boat, with millions voting with their feet to escape ever-escalating taxes and an overbearing government.

While some businesses are outsourced overseas, many relocate to states that believe in welcoming rather than hindering. It is no coincidence that the recipients of Pennsylvania’s brain drain are primarily located in the south and west, states that are free of entrenched, business-as-usual politicians who would rather fall on the sword than make the effort to change the system.

And no state more so than Texas exemplifies the fruits of the strategy to attract the best and brightest. 

Despite America experiencing one of the worst recessions in its history, the Lone Star state is booming. Huge numbers of people seeking opportunity are migrating to Texas, so much so that it just gained a whopping four seats in the Electoral College, bringing its total to 38 — second only to California’s 55.  In stark comparison to its rust belt competitors, Texas has experienced a period of nonstop growth, gaining at least one electoral vote in every census since 1930. (It is interesting to note that California’s economy shrank faster than all but three states over the last ten years; for the first time since 1920, it failed to pick up an electoral vote).

A look at the numbers tells the story:

–         The Texas economy, nearly $1.3 trillion in output, ranks 13thin the world. Some analysts see it eventually eclipsing California in that category.

–         Texas leads the nation in overseas exports, its railroads are ranked at the top, it has more miles of highway than any other state, and has state-of-the-art shipping ports and cargo airports.

–         In Forbes Magazine’s “Best Cities for Jobs” list, Texas cities topped the lists for best big, mid-size and small cities.

–         Nearly 40 percent of all jobs created in the current “recovery” are in Texas, and it is one of only three states have more jobs now than when the recession began in December 2007. The others are North Dakota, Alaska — all, not coincidentally, big energy states.

–         Texas leads the nation with six cities on the top 20 Overall Strongest-Performing Metro Areas, according to the Brookings Institute’s “MetroMonitor” quarterly report.

Texas innately understands that fostering a business-friendly atmosphere pays big dividends.  So it has paved the way for achieving that goal: it is a Right To Work state (where it is not compulsory to join a union as a condition of employment), has no state income tax, and ranks 8th best for business tax climate. And its regulatory environment is not nearly as onerous to business as in many other states.

It has also aggressively passed legal reform measures (reducing litigation costs to historic lows), which is credited as a major factor in the unparalleled job growth Texas is experiencing.

Industries in Texas are quite diversified, from energy and mining, to timber, health care, bio-medical and tourism — industries that parallel those in Pennsylvania.

So why then does the Keystone State, despite its many similarities to Texas, continue to stagnate, seemingly content to limp along while its competitors are thriving?

Because the people, through the politicians they keep electing, are satisfied with mediocrity. Rhetoric aside about wanting to make the state great again, nothing of significance changes in Pennsylvania, no matter what Party controls the Governorship and Legislature.

Tax rates? Among the highest in the nation, especially for businesses, with reductions almost nonexistent. Legal reforms? Few and far between, with no attempt made to pass what is desperately needed: caps on runaway jury awards.  (While the Fair Share Act was just signed into law, limiting liability to one’s responsible share in a lawsuit, it took nine years just to revisit the issue after it passed in 2002 but was thrown out on a technicality).

Regulations? More burdensome than ever.  Educational achievement for the future workforce?  Nearly half of all public school 11th graders cannot pass basic proficiency tests in reading and math.

And of course, Pennsylvania has made absolutely no attempt to rein in the out-of-control public sector unions.

Year after year, teachers’ unions strike more than in all other states combined, with children becoming the victims in the unions’ never-satiated appetite for more taxpayer largesse.  The mere discussion of eliminating collective bargaining was taken off the table by Gov. Corbett prior to entering into negotiations with the state workers’ unions — while getting nothing in return.  And in an era where private sector employees are lucky to keep their jobs, with raises out of the question for most, Corbett just gave the public sector workers an 11 percent raise over four years with lavish benefits and no furloughs.

As far as becoming a Right To Work state, that possibility ended with the Corbett Administration stated it could never pass in Pennsylvania.  Which was true — with Ed Rendell as Governor and a Democratic House.  But with Corbett as leader and major GOP majorities in both chambers, a strong push could well have made that economic godsend a reality.  But it died before it even began.  (And for the naysayers who say it couldn’t pass, just look to Wisconsin for what can be achieved with real leadership.  In arguably one of the most liberal state in the country, collective bargaining was recently eliminated).

The saving grace for Pennsylvania is that it’s sitting atop the second largest natural gas deposit in the world.  Just as energy leads the way it Texas, it could also do so in the Keystone State, as responsible drilling of the Marcellus Shale could pave the way for an unprecedented economic boom.

But given Pennsylvania’s history of chasing away business, the natural gas industry is still (wisely) hedging, waiting to see what the ground rules (no pun intended) will be.  Corbett is right not to impose an extraction tax, as that only would serve to drive a nail into the coffin, but there are many other issues that need to be addressed.  And if the highly-mobile industry does decide to pack it up either because of a hostile business climate or low demand, Pennsylvania, unlike Texas, has no fallback position, pushing it that much closer to the abyss.

Perhaps the most telling difference between the states is not a statistical one, but an intangible.  When in Texas, there is an unbridled sense of pride, a feeling that the American pioneering spirit is thriving, and that nothing is unattainable.

And you see the symbol of that pride everywhere: the Lone Star is embedded in concrete pillars of the modern infrastructure, in buildings, on car bumpers, and even in airport restaurants.  That vibrancy, which is downright palpable, is not just because of Texas’ rich history, but comes from the security that only a booming economy can generate.

Sadly, that feeling has been nonexistent to most Pennsylvanians for decades. Whether we ever regain it will be decided over the next four years.

*****

To Texans, everything they do is not just bigger, but better.  That may seem arrogant to folks in the other 49 states, but as the old adage says, “arrogance ain’t arrogance if you can back it up.”

And looking at the Lone Star State’s success story, it most certainly backs it up.

 

Chris Friend is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com

 Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.”

 Freind, whose column appears regularly in Philadelphia Magazine and nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/national television, most notably on FOX Philadelphia.  He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

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July 14, 2011 at 7:16 am Comments (0)

Local Reps Against 422 Tolling

CBS3.com

“The cow is dry,” said Rep. Dave Maloney (R-Berks). “This is nothing more than another tax, and we can’t afford it.”

“We clearly understand the need for improvements to Route 422,” said Rep. Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery). “But frankly, western Montgomery County has been discriminated against in major road improvements.”

The lawmakers say other big highways in the region, including Routes 309 and 202, have seen significant upgrades and are still free. They worry tolls on 422 would drive commuters to congested back roads like Ridge Pike or Route 23 and would create another bureaucratic tolling authority.

They say tolls only on Route 422 unfairly target drivers who live in that corridor.

“We have to remember that these people are paying for this road. They paid to build this road,” said Rep. Warren Kampf (R-Chester). “They’re paying gas taxes.”

The only big name for tolling is outbound Montco Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, who doesn’t live anywhere near 422.

It’s not the first time he’s come out for tolling. You might remember he wanted to add a “Welcome to Norristown” tolling surcharge on the Turnpike.

One day he’ll come out against taxing something. One day.

June 9, 2011 at 8:16 pm Comments (0)

U.S. 422: If a train is such a great idea….

…then somebody needs to explain this slide to me:

This is from the Draft of the 422Plus slide show that was presented to Governor Tom Corbett’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission (“TFAC”) yesterday.  Full slide show can be viewed here.

I call your attention to total annual funds needed for Operations and Maintenance of $16.04M and the total annual fare revenue of $3.97M.  If I’m reading this correctly, and someone please tell me if I’m not, a full 85% of the funding for the annual operating and maintenance of the Choo Choo is coming from the state.  So much for a self-sustaining transportation alternative.

We can talk “alternate funding sources” all we like; at the end of the day it’s academic.  There is only ONE funding source:  you and I, the tax payers.  Eventually, no matter what it is that is taxed, it’s you and I that pay for it, either directly or indirectly.  

Some relevant quotes on taxation from the folks who support the additional tax burden to justify the ChooChoo train.  Pottstown Mercury:

Hoeffel said the plan would be funded initially by a $1-billion bond issue, which would be repaid by the tolls, and open in 2015. Hoeffel emphasized the project should be under local management and revenue should remain in Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties.

“What we raise here should stay here,” Hoeffel said.

The 422 tolling plan could be a model for other roads in the state.

Hoeffel said the plan has not been presented to local governments or the General Assembly, which would need to enact enabling legislation for the plan and bond issue.

The governing bodies “need leadership. I guess the negative way of saying it is, ‘They need cover,’” Hoeffel said.

“What we raise here should stay here,” sounds great in theory but what it means in practice is the creation of a local taxation authority ala the Pennsylvania Turpike Commission and Delaware River Port Authority, institutions famous for their political patronage job creating abilities.

If perhaps you’ve forgotten that the 202 corridor has just benefitted from a half a billion dollars in funding for road improvements, without imposing a toll, I direct your attention to this post.

My favorite quote, though, comes from Carol Rein of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, who is apparently an expert on road tolling mechanisms and claims that Texas and Florida have the best tolling and transportation funding programs around the country. Her quote is especially jarring:

“You have to pick taxes that are hard to evade, so you can predict their collectibility,”

June 7, 2011 at 10:20 pm Comment (1)

Lessons For Gov. Christie On “CopterGate”

 In the 1970’s, a special state prosecutor was appointed to investigate “ongoing, widespread and systematic corruption” at every level of the police department in Philadelphia. Despite allegations that police engaged in bribes to permit gambling, prostitution and other illegal activities, the investigation came to known simply as the “Hamburger Report” because it revealed that some cops had accepted free hamburgers from a restaurant.

The serious charges were overlooked by the media and public as the hamburger issue took center stage, ultimately discrediting much of the hard work put forth by the investigators.  It was irrelevant that the hamburger allegation, in the grand scheme of the report, was extremely minor.  The circus surrounding the burgers ruled the headlines, and the more important issues suffered.

That same type of situation is now engulfing New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, as he continues to navigate the political minefield that has come to be known as “CopterGate.”

It is an issue that, in reality, is irrelevant to governing the state, but is quickly turning into an agenda-threatening quagmire from which the Governor has yet to extricate himself.

*****

As my grandfather always said, “arrogance isn’t arrogance if you can back it up.”

Given the national attention generated from Christie’s substantial achievements — accomplished despite sizable Democratic legislative majorities — that quote has been most applicable to the Governor.

Until now.

Critics and political foes winced in despair as they saw that Christie was an immovable object when it came to reining in out-of-control public sector unions, putting the brakes on state spending and making teachers more accountable, all while not raising taxes. He was a man on a mission, barnstorming the state to sell his ideas and explain why painful cuts were necessary. Chris Christie, unlike some other Republican governors from critical swing states, understood what the bully pulpit was, and redefined how to use it to maximum effect.

He is a leader who rarely reads a speech or uses a teleprompter, and actively courts the media rather than avoiding them.  His blunt, down-to-earth and sometimes in-your-face style resonates not just throughout the state, but the nation. The fact that he is a politician who actually speaks his mind, and does so off-the-cuff, has made him — although not all his policies — extremely popular.

But there is a danger in Christie having such an aggressive, and some say, abrasive personality, given that he is involved in so many controversial issues and holds himself to a higher standard.

While that style can score the Governor huge political points, it can also be an Achilles heel when an unexpected negative comes along.  Such a personality is one that seems to throw fuel on the fire.

Christie is just learning that concept.

The Governor recently took a state police helicopter to his son’s high school baseball game, landing in full view of the spectators and riding in a black car with tinted windows the two hundred feet to the bleachers.  Several innings into the game, he took off and flew to the Governor’s mansion — to meet with presidential fundraisers from Iowa.

Christie was caught offguard by the ensuing firestorm, and, as a result, voluntarily reimbursed the state police for the first leg of the trip, and had the state GOP organization reimburse the trip to the mansion.

At a press conference, he did not apologize nor admit wrongdoing, and stated that, while his trips were legal (which they were) and appropriate, he made the reimbursement so as not to “allow” the media and political “hacks” to turn the CopterGate issue into a circus.

He also said that he would not “permit” the issue to divert attention from the serious problems facing New Jersey.

That all sounds good, but reality is something entirely different. As the Governor should know, those things are not within his power to control.  The story not only isn’t going away, but it’s a certainty the Democrats are already producing television ads attacking Christie for what they will undoubtedly label as a hypocritical and elitist action. 

Like the Hamburger Report, it’s irrelevant whether the Governor thinks the issue is a trivial one that should just go away.  Perception is reality, and Christie’s adversaries will make sure that the public and media perceive the issue to be more important than it really is. Some legislators are even calling for hearings investigating his use of helicopters and whether anyone was denied medical transport because of the Governor’s baseball game trip.

It’s classic Politics 101.  When you can’t beat your opponent on the real issues, find something juicy (but unimportant), and run with it.  Getting a powerhouse like Chris Christie off-track is just as good as defeating his agenda. 

*****

Christie is too strong to be down for long, and he will weather this storm. And assuming he doesn’t hand his political foes another golden opportunity, his reputation will recover.  But there are certain truisms, fair or not, that he would be wise to understand, especially if, as many expect, he runs for President in the future.

1)      You are a Republican, and there is a double standard. Deal with it.  The media, overall, is a facilitator of that, and it’ s not changing anytime soon.  The quicker GOP leaders understand that, the more effective they are.

2)      You are, most definitely, not an MIA, Do-Nothing Governor.  The fact that you are tackling the toughest issues — in heavily-unionized, traditionally Democratic New Jersey, no less — and winning, is remarkable.  But that makes you a target, and your adversaries, who have been unsuccessfully looking for a way to dent your armor, for once hit a bulls-eye.  Don’t give them another opportunity, since they cannot win on the issues.

 3)      Rationalizations for un-shrewd political moves only make the situation worse.  Stating that your predecessors used helicopters much more than you have, the pilots need the airtime anyway, and even reimbursing the state police, are meaningless, as the damage is already done. (Truth is, Christie has used helicopters very sparingly, flying only 33 times in 17 months, versus, in some cases, over 1,000 trips by former governors). The issue is not a Governor using a state helicopter, but using it for personal and political trips.

4)      No one disputes that you are a dedicated father who cherishes watching your son’s game, but 99 percent of other parents feel the same way, and a majority of them often cannot make those games due to work constraints. Your use of state resources, whether or not they are cost-neutral, makes you look like anything but a man of the people.

5)      The only way not to “permit” serious issues from being sidetracked, and not “allowing” the media and the “hacks” to turn these types of issues into a “circus,” is to not give them the material to do so. 

*****

In a little over a year, Governor Christie has done the impossible.  He has made New Jersey relevant and competitive, and, more important, brought a palpable sense of pride back to residents of the Garden State.  In doing so, though, he has also made many self-interested enemies who have been breathlessly waiting to pounce on the Governor for first mistake.

While he opened the door for them in a way that was wholly preventable, he has the force of personality to slam it shut by not repeating that kind of mistake.  For the sake of New Jersey, let’s hope he does, so that his remarkable successes do not get overshadowed by Jersey’s own Hamburger Report.

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com

 Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.” Freind, whose column appears regularly in Philadelphia

Magazine and nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/national television, most notably on FOX Philadelphia.  He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

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June 7, 2011 at 8:54 pm Comments (0)

US 422: For Whom the Road Tolls

The proposal to toll US Route 422 has floated to the top of the news again. Sunday’s Pottstown Mercury:

The executive commission examining transportation funding in Pennsylvania will hear a proposal June 6 that could hit the wallets of Route 422 commuters.

The 30-member commission, appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett, will see a presentation demonstrating how tolls on Route 422 in Montgomery, Chester and Berks counties could serve as a model for similar projects statewide. The commission is looking for a way to generate more than $2.5 billion in annual transportation funding in the post-stimulus environment of declining federal spending on infrastructure.

State Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch, who also serves as chairman of the commission, said the Route 422 model would allow county or municipal authorities to form a “local taxation authority” and keep the revenue from tolls and local taxes dedicated for local highways.

That revenue would be “above and beyond” transportation spending at the state level, Schoch said.

Let’s set aside the fact that state government exists primarily to fund the creation and maintenance of infrastructure and let’s not ask where all of THAT money has gone (nor will we question the reliance on fiscal federalism that got us to the place where we need to fund a $2.5 billion shortfall at this time). However, the suggestion to form a “local taxation authority” in this article should send chills down the spine of any thinking Pennsylvanian who has the tiniest bit of working knowledge of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Authority and the Delaware River Port Authority, long havens of political patronage jobs and fund mismanagement. Rule number one is never ever give the government a new revenue stream. Rule number two is never create a new local taxation authority to manage that revenue stream.

But these are all issues that have been discussed before on this blog. Why I revisit the 422 tolling issue once more is because of a mailer I received today from Senator Andy Dinniman called “Moving Forward – A New Route 202.” The mailer is not available online at the time of this post, however this press release from March 22, 2011 has the relevant passage that I was looking to excerpt:

“[T]he Route 29 slip ramp, the Turnpike Widening and the Route 202 Widening represent an investment of $523 million to our local economy, which is expected to spur at least an additional $1.5 billion in construction and the creation of up to 20,000 full-time jobs,” Dinniman said. “It will provide a significant boost to our region in challenging economic times.”

According to Senator Dinniman’s press release, the Route 29 slip ramp and Turnpike widening is a $48 million project that is funded entirely by Turnpike tolls.

The US Route 202 widening project is described as such on the project’s website:

Significant growth in the region has increased traffic on US Route 202 to levels well beyond those that the two-lane highway originally was designed to handle. In fact, 73,000 vehicles a day now travel on this section of Route 202, and the improvements we have planned will help the highway carry its present and future traffic more efficiently.

 Under the overall Section 300 project, PennDOT will utilize significant federal and state transportation funding, most of which is collected at the fuel pump and through licensing fees, to
  • Reconstruct Route 202’s four existing travel lanes
  • Add a third travel lane in each direction, utilizing the existing grass median
  • Rebuild seven overpasses to provide additional horizontal and vertical clearance
  • Construct a two-lane collector-distributor (C-D) roadway along northbound Route 202 at the Route 29/Great Valley Interchange to eliminate conflicts between ramp traffic and through traffic
  • Improve the Route 401/Frazer Interchange and install new traffic signals
  • Install Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) components, including highway cams and electronic message signs
  • Improve the expressway’s storm water management system, and
  • Erect sound walls at eligible locations

So my question is this:

Route 202 corridor has benefitted from millions of dollars of investment in infrastructure improvment and widening in recent years, this latest “Section 300″ of the project is only the most recent. And all the while this 202 improvement has been going on, US 422 has been almost completely neglected except for a cursory resurfacing here and there and a half-assed widening of the Betzwood Bridge that caused more problems than it solved.

And now, in order to improve 422 to give it’s commuters the same state-of-the-art highway that Route 202 communters enjoy, Harrisburg is trying to tell Route 422 commuters that the only way to fund their necessary infrastructure improvements is through tolls. If tolls are so critical to the funding of our infrastructure as we’ve been led to believe, why not toll Route 202 as well? Why should 202 commuters not have to pay for their own improvements?

Oh, wait. We’re forgetting that most critical of all central planning expenditures:

In the case of Route 422, the tolls also could pay for a commuter rail line to take some of the pressure off the highway between Reading and the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstates 76 and 476

Oh yes. The TRAIN. Because trains are NOTORIOUSLY self-sustaining without subsidies (see: SEPTA), and effective at alleviating traffic (see: Route 202 and the Schuykill Expressway).

No one will ever be able to convince me that the impetus behind 422 tolling is to fund infrastructure to alleviate traffic. It sounds far more plausible that 422 tolls will be primarily used to fund another government run, public union-staffed, tax dollar subsidized public transportation sytem that will have absolutely no positive impact on the traffic that 422 commuters sit in every. Single. Day.  Only 422 commuters will get the double insult and injury of having to pay for this indignity.

422 tolling is a bad idea that must never be implemented.

June 1, 2011 at 7:54 pm Comments (0)

Dear Governor Corbett

Do this with the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Christie administration tells union toll collectors to take it or leave it
(h/t Redstate)

In the contract, both unions agreed to reduce the top range of annual salaries to $57,000 as of June 30, 2011, and to $49,500 as of July 1, 2012. The contract also reduces three holidays for Parkway collectors from 15 to 12, including eliminating a toll collector’s birthday as one of them, and on the Turnpike, from 14 to 12.

The contract also eliminates 14 items that the state comptroller’s office criticized, ranging from uniform allowances to changing work rules.

In the contract, both unions agree that toll collector jobs will be eliminated by July 13, 2013, as the authority moves toward cashless toll collection.

So it looks like they’re taking it.

And here’s my philosophical question for the day: is Chris Christie a Big Fat Union-Hating Meany because he’s taking away the toll collectors’ jobs or is this economic karma getting its groove on because there is absolutely no freaking way to justify paying anyone $57K to make change?

You make the call.

Hey, remember in ’04 when the toll collectors went on strike in PA so that they, too, could continue to make a lot of money to make change? I do. It’s seven years later, and they’re still making that money, except I now have to mortgage my house if I want to drive from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.

Good times.

April 30, 2011 at 9:33 pm Comments (0)

Bieber Bus Assault

No, not Justin Bieber.

A man riding a Bieber bus from Philadelphia to Reading pulled down his pants, put a plastic bag over the female bus driver’s head and grabbed one of her breasts, state police allege.

The bus driver for Bieber Bus Lines managed to shed the plastic bag and ordered the half-naked man back to his seat for the duration of the ride to Reading, where police were waiting.

Carlos Perez-Rodriguez, 35, whose last known address was in Reading, was one of three passengers on the bus and sat two rows behind the driver. While on Route 422 in Upper Providence Township, Montgomery County, Perez-Rodriguez got out of his seat between 11 p.m. and 11:45 p.m. He walked toward the bus driver while she was driving about 55 mph on the four-lane highway and placed a plastic bag over her head, according to arrest papers.

That’s insane.

Perez-Rodriguez created a hazardous condition for the driver and passengers and other vehicles on the road. Police said the bus driver managed to remove the bag from her head and safely pull the bus to the side of the road while Perez-Rodriguez grabbed at her breast and exposed his genitals to her and passengers.

The bus driver then escorted Perez-Rodriguez back to his seat while his pants remained around his ankles. Because of company police, the bus driver could not order him off the bus. He remained in his seat until arriving at the bus terminal in Reading, where he was taken into custody.

March 28, 2011 at 4:42 pm Comments (0)

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