PA roads, bridges crumble as politicos wait for action
State has 5,000 bridges, 7,000 miles of roads needing repair
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania has been gambling with its more than 5,000 structurally deficient bridges and 7,000 miles of highways in need of repairs — but the house always wins.
State Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch said Wednesday that drivers should expect to pay more on the state's transportation network, but the question is: Will drivers see their money rebuild the state’s infrastructure or lost as a result of sitting in traffic or detouring around closed bridges?
“Government is going to charge you one way or another," Schoch said. “If we don’t charge you to fix the problem, on this specific issue, we’re charging you another way. We’re charging you to sit in traffic and to drive around posted and closed bridges.”
And those costs will be higher than the estimated $3.5 billion annually the state must put into its transportation network, said Schoch. Gov. Tom Corbett’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, which Schoch led, arrived at that figure last summer.
And the stakes are getting higher.
With more fuel-efficient vehicles, there is less money in the pot, since most of the state’s transportation dollars come from the gasoline tax of 32 cents per gallon.
It adds up to one of the biggest problems facing lawmakers, and while Corbett continues to play his hand close to the vest, Schoch dealt various potential options to lawmakers during Wednesday’s budget hearing with the state House Appropriations Committee.
Perhaps the most likely funding mechanism — and the top recommendation of the Transportation Commission — is the uncapping of one part of the state’s gasoline tax.
The state collects about $1.2 billion from the gasoline tax each year, which is made up of a 12 cent flat tax and a second tax based on a percentage of the wholesale price of gasoline.
That second tax — the Oil Franchise Tax — is about 20 cents per gallon, the highest it can be based on the cap established in 1983. Based on current prices, removing the cap would add 28 cents to the wholesale price of gasoline and generate about $1.4 billion in additional revenue, the Transportation Commission report estimated.
Schoch said not all of the increased cost would be passed on at the pump, but some would.
On the other hand, the increase would provide the state with a stream of funding tied to inflation for future years, Schoch said.
But with gas prices forecast to hit historic highs this summer, and with elections in November, the deck is stacked against any vote to raise the gas tax.
State Rep. Gordon Denlinger, R-Lancaster, said increasing the gas tax was “politically unrealistic” when people were struggling financially and unemployment was above 8 percent.
“This is the wrong time, in my estimation, to be burdening citizens with higher rates of taxation,” he said.
Pennsylvania’s gasoline tax is the 10th highest in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C., tax policy center.
Mary Bahn, a retiree from Cumberland County who was visiting the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, said roads in Pennsylvania were “like driving on corduroy,” but increasing the gas tax would make it more difficult for her to make ends meet.
But other revenue options face long odds, too.
Schoch said the department is asking the federal government to relax regulations on the tolling of interstates, but so far there has been no progress.
If tolling was considered as a funding source, it would be approached with a broad stroke, he said, rather than singling out any particular highway as the state has tried to do in recent years.
In 2010, the federal government rejected the state’s plan to toll Interstate 80, which faced massive opposition from residents and lawmakers in the I-80 corridor.
There was similar popular opposition to a plan last year to toll U.S. Route 422 in the Philadelphia suburbs, which killed that proposal.
State Rep. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe, said a broader approach to tolling could work.
“If you’re going to toll, don’t put 20 on one interstate. If you’re going to do it, put it on the backs of everyone and use it on the roadway right there instead of moving it around,” Scavello said.
But state Rep. Rick Geist, R-Blair, chairman of the state House Transportation Committee, said any tolling decisions would require the federal government to give states that authority, something Congress has been reluctant to do.
Another option is a new tax on miles traveled, which would be charged annually when vehicles are registered with the state and report their odometer readings.
Schoch said that model would ensure all cars, including alternative fuel vehicles — which pay no gasoline tax and are becoming more common — continue to pay into the system. But he acknowledged there would be public opposition to tracking residents’ driving and said the system would have to be implemented at the federal level to be effective.
Democrats urged Schoch to up the ante on Corbett to decide on a course of action.
“I do think the public expects some solution from the governor after a year, or a year and a half,” said state Rep. Matthew Smith, D-Allegheny. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Last week, Corbett told reporters he was still developing a plan for transportation funding but declined to give a timeline for making it public.
On Wednesday, Schoch said Corbett has not met with state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, or state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, both of whom turned the Transportation Commission’s report into a pair of bills last fall. That legislation has not advanced.
The Pennsylvania AAA Federation endorsed the results of the funding commission study and several chambers of commerce in the state have called for a transportation infrastructure funding plan, citing improved infrastructure as a key to attracting businesses and residents to the state.