BY John Finnerty
A state representative from Crawford County is among the Republicans expressing concern about a transportation funding plan Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to announce soon.
The Republican governor plans to announce a push to lift a cap on the wholesale tax on gasoline. Some Republicans believe there is simply no other way to generate the funding needed to address aging roads and bridges, while others are concerned the move will be seen as a violation of their stand against raising taxes. Still others, like Rep. Brad Roae, whose Sixth District includes Meadville and Titusville, also believe the money needed can be found by eliminating waste and changing priorities.
The governor’s plan to remove the cap on the oil and franchise tax, which is now set at $1.25 a gallon, is projected to generate $1.9 billion in revenue. One lawmaker said he had heard estimates suggesting that lifting the cap would translate into a 20 cents a gallon increase at the pump. Other lawmakers said they have not seen any estimates of what lifting the cap would mean at the pump, but most said they believed it would lead to an increase in pump prices.
A copy of the governor’s proposal given to lawmakers indicates that Corbett is planning to devote $1.2 billion for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to fix roads and bridges, $250 million in new revenue for mass transit, $200 million in revenue for local roads and bridges, and $75 million for “multi-modal” transportation including rail, aviation and ports.
The governor’s proposal would also hold the line on driver’s license and vehicle registration fees, while extending the amount of time those license and registration documents are valid. Under the plan, driver’s licenses would be valid for six years instead of four and vehicle registrations would only need to be renewed every two years.
Lawmakers like Roae are critical for two reasons.
“We need to look at all the money we are wasting before we start talking about asking people to put more money in the pile. I have never supported a tax increase of any type,” he said.
Roae said that the state spends too much money subsidizing the cost of mass transit — only 5 percent of the population uses mass transit, but mass transit receives 15 percent of transportation funding. If the state spent less subsidizing public transit, PennDOT would have more money to fix roads and bridges, Roae said.
In addition, a $1 per tire fee paid on every new tire is directed to mass transit.
“When you buy four new tires, you give $4 to mass transit. If we are going to have a tire tax, it should go to the roads and bridges that those tires are driving on, not lower bus fare for people who use mass transit,” Roae said.
A Department of Revenue spokeswoman said the tire fee generated $10.7 million in revenue in fiscal 2011-12.
Roae’s concerns are similar to those expressed in a memo from House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, obtained by The Associated Press last week, in which he indicated that before there is any increase in taxes, the state’s transportation agencies must thoroughly demonstrate that they are using their existing funding responsibly.
However, such a review will do nothing to win the support of some lawmakers.
“It absolutely is a tax increase that will only get us halfway” to the $3.8 billion amount a transportation funding advisory commission suggested is needed, said Rep. Gary Haluska, a Democrat whose 73rd District is Cambria County.
Haluska said that if the state lifts the cap on wholesale taxes, he believes it will lead to an increase of about 20 cents a gallon in prices at the pump.
Haluska said a more equitable way of paying for transportation funding would be to more widely employ tolling as a means of generating revenue to pay for highway and bridge work.
Haluska said that the plan to toll Interstate 80 was rejected because the federal government would not endorse Pennsylvania’s plan to devote some of that money for mass transit. If the state were to rework its approach so that all revenue from tolling is devoted toward maintaining the roads being tolled, it is more likely that the federal Transportation Highway Administration would lend its approval.
The concerns over the tax increase may be less problematic in the Senate.
“The Senate tends to be more moderate,” said Sen. Gene Yaw, a Republican whose 23rd District includes Lycoming County.
Yaw said that he does not particularly believe that lifting the cap is the same as a tax increase. But, “the bottom line is, we need money to repair roads and bridges,” he said.
Sen. John Wozniak, the minority chairman of the Senate transportation committee, said lifting the cap on the wholesale gas tax is the easiest way to generate the almost $2 billion.
The Democrat whose 35th District includes Cambria County also sees a wider impact.
But the infusion of construction spending that would result from the governor’s transportation plan “would create 10,000 construction jobs,” Wozniak said.
“I’ve talked to private contractors who have not purchased equipment in a decade,” he said. Those contractors would likely begin to order new equipment to meet the demand created by the state spending. “There will be a multiplier effect.”
Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for newspapers in Pennsylvania owned by CNHI, including The Meadville Tribune.