A press conference was held outside the Jim Thorpe Train Station on Thursday to announce the introduction of legislation to designate all money generated from the sale of the Pennsylvania State liquor stores to the improvement of Pennsylvania's roads and bridges.
The plan was unveiled by Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-124th Legislative District, portions of Schuylkill and Berks Counties, with the support of Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-122nd District, Carbon County, and Wayne Nothstein, Republican Carbon County Commissioner.
Knowles' legislation, House Bill 2020, is also known as the Infrastructure Future Fund Act, and seeks to marry the sale of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's State Stores with an uptick in funding for major repairs to the roads and bridges in Pennsylvania.
The meeting location was chosen to be near the Lehigh River where two bridges, one on Route 903 and a second on Route 209, are in need of replacement.
"There's no pot of gold in Harrisburg," Heffley said. "Route 209 in Lehighton and the 903 Bridge in Jim Thorpe are in desperate need of repair. PennDOT has designs in place and is waiting for the capital to come through."
At the train station, it was at times nearly impossible to hear the speakers over the continuous drone of tractor trailers meandering through the improved intersection in downtown Jim Thorpe.
"Our biggest challenge in the county is the infrastructure," saud Nothstein in support of the proposed legislation. "Without proper roads, we cannot bring jobs to Carbon County."
There is currently a bill under consideration, House Bill 11, sponsored by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, that if passed, will privatize the wholesale and retail sales operations of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
"I support the privatization to the PLCB," Knowles explained. "One of the elements that I thought was missing was where the money goes. I think it is important that the money goes into roads and bridges. It's important and is greatly needed. It is not the cure-all by any means but it is a start."
In May of 2010, the Pennsylvania Transportation Advisory Committee reported that there are more than 5,600 structurally deficient bridges and 7,000 miles of roads in poor condition throughout Pennsylvania. Additionally, two state and two federal commissions have determined that the state would need an additional $3.5 billion per year to meet its highway, bridge and transit needs.
House Bill 2020 would distribute the proceeds from the sale of the PLCB over a five-year period – about 20 percent per year plus interest. According to Knowles, sale of the PLCB will raise an estimated $1.2 billion to $2 billion. Depending on the actual sale price of the PLCB, $300 million to $500 million could be made available annually for five years. This would be only part of the $3.5 billion needed to close that portion of the budget gap.
"Folks driving around Carbon County on a daily basis can see and feel the poor condition of our roadways. However, more of a concern than a bumpy ride is the significant public safety threat we face if any of our roads or bridges fail," said Heffley.
"State government is searching for money that can help cover the cost for needed repairs and upgrades, and if the state liquor stores are privatized there will be a significant one-time pot of cash that can be used to jump-start the state's long list of transportation projects. This type of out-of-the-box thinking is what we need in order to tackle a looming public safety issue," added Heffley.
"The sale of the Pennsylvania State stores would bring profits into the state," Heffley noted. "It is important that we use those dollars wisely. It is going to be a one-time influx of capital and I feel that directing this funding to our roads and bridges and infrastructure will not only create jobs in the construction field, but also will help alleviate some of the congestion problems and some of the safety risks we have here in our commonwealth."
When asked how much revenue would be lost if the PLCB was sold, Knowles said that he has heard figures that $600 million annually would be lost. But, he noted, much of that includes taxes that would continue to be collected even after the PLCB is sold. He felt that the state would forego an annual income of $60 million if the state stores were sold.
Asked if closure of the state stores might result in increased underaged drinking and drunk driving, Knowles said, "My wife and I ran a small business for 10 years. I believe there are core services provided. I don't understand why we are in the wine and spirits business. I haven't seen one business that government can run better than the private sector."
He noted that the license for a liquor store will be an expensive investment and he felt that license holders would maintain high standards to hold their license.
"I believe we need to control this with education and law enforcement," Knowles added.
"My legislation is not a cure-all solution for the problems facing the state's infrastructure, but it is a start," said Knowles. "This one-time infusion of funds would have an impact on future generations of the motoring public and all citizens of the commonwealth."
House Bill 2020 is currently awaiting the consideration of the Transportation Committee.