Meadville Tribune

April 7, 2013

Corbett transportation plan includes gas tax hike

By John Finnerty
Contributed photo

MEADVILLE — Call it Gov. Tom Corbett’s road show.

The state Legislature has yet to seriously take up the issue of transportation funding. But members of the Corbett administration have been traveling the state to publicly tie dollars for eagerly-anticipated transportation projects to the funding plan.

It may be an attempt to head-off opposition before it gets fully-organized as the funding strategy relies on what could be a controversial tax increase of about 25 cents on every gallon of gas.

Last week, Transportation Secretary Barry Shoch joined a group of lawmakers and community leaders in Sunbury to announce that the plan would provide $558 million to complete a Thruway project that has been on the drawing boards for 30 years.

In March, Corbett announced that money from the transportation plan would help pay for the subsidy needed to keep the Harrisburg-to-Pittsburgh Amtrak route running.

The Department of Transportation plans to release a complete list of projects that depend on funding from the gas-tax plan later this spring, PennDOT spokesman Steve Chizmar said. But, the department has already disclosed a dozen such projects worth a combined $1.2 billion in construction costs.

That is essentially the same amount that Corbett’s plan would set aside for repairs to state-owned roads every year once the plan is fully funded.

Because the gas tax increase is being phased in, Corbett’s plan would generate about $510 million in additional transportation funding in the first year and $1.8 billion a year by the end of five years.

The governor’s plan would devote an additional $1.2 billion to state-owned roads and bridges; $250 million more to mass transit; $200 million more for local roads and bridges; and $75 million to a multimodal fund for trains and airports.

Democratic Sen. John Wozniak of Cambria County said that it has been easy for lawmakers to say they will support the transportation plan because the notion that it will translate into increased prices at the pump has not been widely recognized by the public. In addition, many Republican lawmakers have taken no-tax increase pledges.

The governor, who has been adamantly opposed to tax increases himself, has tried to create some wiggle room. The plan is to lift the ceiling on a wholesale gas tax. Because of the ceiling, the gas tax is based on a top price of $1.25 a gallon even though gas now can cost three times that much.

Wozniak said that the state has not increased the tax on gas since 1997.

The tax increase is almost certainly needed because the state has to fix its roads and bridges, he said.

“If we don’t do something, and then a bridge falls down,” Wozniak said, “then everyone will be asking why we didn’t do something.”

But if the plan is going to depend on motorists paying more at the gas station. That kind of pain in the wallet is going to need to be shared.

“If there is going to be pain at the pump, then mass transit is going to have to have some skin in the game too,” Wozniak said.

It is a sentiment felt by many rural lawmakers.

“Car owners pay a gasoline tax, a registration fee, an inspection sticker fee, a drivers license fee, they pay sales tax when they buy their car, they pay sales tax on auto repairs, they pay sales tax on auto parts, they pay a tire tax, they pay a car lease tax, and they pay tolls to use some highways and bridges,” said Republican state Rep. Bradley Roae of Crawford County. “Mass transit riders who do not own cars pay zero for our transporation system. They contribute nothing. If we consider raising the gasoline tax, we should also consider a mass transit tax so that all Pennsylvania citizens share in the cost of our transportation system.”

Highways held hostage

Projects that the PennDOT says will only take place if Gov. Tom Corbett’s transportation funding plan is approved by the legislature:

Northwestern PA — $18 million

- $18 million: Resurfacing and preserving bridges along five miles of Interstate 376 in northern Lawrence County from the Mitchell Road Interchange to the Mercer County Line.

Southwestern PA - $121 million

- $87 million: Reconstructing pavement and preserving bridges along eight miles of the Interstate 376 Southern Expressway in Allegheny County.

- $34 million: Rehabilitating the Birmingham Bridge in the City of Pittsburgh for $34 million.  

Central PA — $618 million

- $558 million: Paying for the construction of a 12-mile Thruway and 1-mile-long bridge over the Susquehanna River, Snyder-Northumberland counties.

- $29 million: Roadway reconstruction along four and a half miles of Atherton Street in State College, Centre County, from Lowes Boulevard to Branch Road.

- $16 million: Roadway resurfacing along 25 miles of Route 44 in Potter County from the Lycoming County line to Route 6.

- $15 million: Completing roadway resurfacing and bridge preservation for the remaining sections of Route 220, the Lock Haven Bypass in Clinton County.

Northeastern PA — $77 million

- $32 million: Rehabilitating pavement on 31 miles of Route 6, the Robert P. Casey Highway, in Lackawanna County.

- $25 million: Reconstructing the final section of Route 2001 in Pike County from Milford to Bushkill.

- $20 million: Extending one mile of Route 424 between Interstate 81’s Exit 143 and Humboldt Industrial Park in Luzerne County, including access and safety improvements with economic development opportunities.

Southeastern PA — $475 million

- $149 million: Replacing the Route 422 bridge over the Schuylkill River at Betzwood and replacing the bridge carrying Route 23 over Route 422 in Montgomery County.

- $216 million: Two construction projects to reconstruct pavement and widen to add two lanes along eight miles of Route 322 from Route 1 to Interstate 95 in Delaware County.

- $110 million: Replacing seven bridges over Interstate 676 in the City of Philadelphia.

In addition to those highway and bridge projects, the governor has said he would use money from the transportation funding plan to pay for the $3.8 million cost of subsidizing the Harrisburg-to-Pittsburgh train route, which criss-crosses central and western Pennsylvania, including stops in Lewistown and Johnstown.