By Andrew Staub | Pennsylvania Independent
HARRISBURG – Sometime next week, Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to sign a bill that eventually will inject $2.3 billion into transportation initiatives. But the bill includes financial potholes for every motorist in the Keystone State.
While the transportation funding package will eliminate the 12-cents-a-gallon tax that motorists pay when they fill up, there’s a real possibility that a move to further tax fuel at the wholesale level will trickle down to the pumps. Vehicle registration and drivers’ licenses fees would also increase.
The taxes and fees will be phased in over five years, with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation anticipating the average driver will pay $2.50 more in weekly gas costs in the final year.
“We’re asking people to pay more, but it’s not coming all at one shot,” said Rich Kirkpatrick, a PennDOT spokesman.
After appearing more like a lemon than a substantial investment to improve infrastructure and mass transit earlier this week, the transportation funding package began moving through the state Legislature quickly on Tuesday, with the House sending it to Corbett’s desk after passing it by a 113-85 margin during a previously unscheduled Thursday session.
It marked a huge political victory for Corbett, who made transportation funding a top priority this fall and called the passage of the bill a “landmark day for Pennsylvania.” Still, he faced questions of whether he was reneging on a campaign promise to not increase taxes. The governor disagreed and said he had to deal with an issue of public safety.
“The motoring public, whether it’s trucks, cars, buses coming through Pennsylvania, we’re all exposed to a decaying infrastructure, which needs to be repaired,” he said. “I think we took a very logical position.”
Given that far more factors than just taxes influence the price of fuel, it’s unclear how much of the increased costs at the wholesale level will be passed down to motorists, though Corbett acknowledged some would.
State Sen. John Rafferty, the Republican chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said Wednesday that the costs will be passed onto the “big guys,” but state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, contends the funding plan will result in the “highest gas tax in the nation.”
Four other states have higher gas tax rates than Pennsylvania, and that won’t change in the first year of the transportation plan, Kirkpatrick said, calling anything beyond that “speculation because we don’t know what other states will be doing with their gas taxes.”
As the House debate played out, Republican Rep. Nicholas Micozzie, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said bridge conditions are ripe for disaster and equated the situation to utilities raising rates for users.
“I don’t like to see that, and I know my constituents don’t either, but they also have a level of expectation,” he said. “The expectation is that the roads and bridges and buses and trains they drive on are safe and will get them to where they need to go. The cost of doing nothing now will be very costly in the future.”
Metcalfe continued to blast the funding plan, saying his staff counted more than 130 fine and fee increases in the bill — including raising the cost for registration of an ambulance and increasing the cost of vanity plates.
Motorists won’t notice some changes for a few years. Drivers’ license fees will increase $2 to $23 for four years, while passenger car registration will jump by $4 to $40 a year, but not until 2015, Kirkpatrick said.
The transportation bill also will increase the fine for failure to obey a traffic control device from $25 to $150, but will eliminate fees and surcharges that can add about $100 to the cost of the citation, according to PennDOT. That goes into effect in January.
Despite a week of heated rhetoric about gas tax increases and a change to the prevailing wage law that was included in the bill, for Corbett, the issue boiled down to economic development and improving public safety through transportation upgrades across the state.
The governor called it a “new era,” albeit one that will include increased costs for motorists.
Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.