By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — After a year of waiting, Gov. Tom Corbett placed his chips on the table last week.
Tuesday, state Sen. John Rafferty, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, called that bet and raised it.
Rafferty said he would like to see a final transportation funding plan that totals at least $2.7 billion in new annual revenues, exactly a week after the governor outlined a plan to increase funding for roads, bridges and mass transit by $1.7 billion annually.
“Ours will be a higher financing level,” Rafferty said. “My goal is to reach $2.7 billion or $2.8 billion.”
Corbett’s proposal would uncap a portion of the state’s gasoline tax as the primary source of new revenue. The oil franchise tax, as it is technically known, would gradually rise over five years from the current limit — applied only to the first $1.25 of the wholesale price of gasoline. The governor’s plan would also decrease another portion of the gasoline tax by about 20 percent.
Rafferty said Tuesday he supports those proposals but also wants to increase the cost of vehicle registration and drivers’ license fees, which have not been raised since 1997. Rafferty said those increases are “under serious consideration” because they would move the final revenue figure closer to his $2.7 billion total.
There appears to be bipartisan support in the state Senate for a higher level than what the governor proposed.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa described Corbett’s $1.7 billion spending plan Monday morning as “not enough,” a view, he said, several of his caucus members share.
“If we’re going to take a bite at this apple, I’d like to take as big of a bite as we can get,” said state Sen. Richard Alloway, R-Franklin, on Tuesday.
Asked Tuesday if he would approve a plan that went above his $1.7 billion baseline by raising vehicle fees, Corbett said he was trying to keep the taxpayers in mind, “first and foremost.”
“I made, in our budget proposal, what I considered to be a reasonable proposal in light of the economic times on the taxpayers,” Corbett said, noting the state House would also have to sign off on any higher funding level approved by the state Senate.
But Republican leaders in the state House are not showing their hand just yet.
“Right now I’d just be shooting from the hip if I gave you a number,” state Rep. Dick Hess, R-Bedford, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said Tuesday. “At this point we don’t know if we’re going to have to go higher.”
Many lawmakers asking for more revenue point to the 2011 report from the Transportation Funding Advisory Commission – created by Corbett and chaired by PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch – that indicated Pennsylvania would need between $2.7 billion and $3.5 billion in new annual revenues to address its transportation infrastructure issues.
Schoch, who addressed the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday, said the department was prepared to meet with individual members to discuss specific projects in their districts, a key point in the process of rounding up votes for a transportation bill.
He said a website would be set up to inform the public about how the new revenues from a higher gasoline tax – and potentially higher vehicle fees – would be spent, and to identify which bridges would remain in disrepair if nothing was approved.
“There are consequences either way and benefits either way,” Schoch said.
As for the gasoline tax increase, Schoch said it was unknown how much of the hike would be passed along to motorists, but an economist with the American Petroleum Institute said last week the tax increase would be shifted to the price at the pump.
The overall total of the package could climb to $3 billion when combined with expected savings from passing some bridge projects to private developers, who will rebuild and then toll them, Rafferty said.
Last year, the state created a new board to oversee and approve public-private partnerships for rebuilding state roads and bridges along with other projects such as the privatization of the motorist information hotline.
Schoch said major bridge projects could be taken off the state’s to-do list by allowing a private company to lease the bridge for a set period, rebuild it and apply tolls to it. Under new federal guidelines, those tolls dollars would have to be used on that same highway or on nearby roads.
Schoch said the state would use the so-called “P3” process for major bridges, not local routes, and would focus on the southeast part of the state.
Polling shows an overwhelming majority of the state’s residents favor spending more money on transportation, but most are unwilling to open their own wallets to pay for it.
It seems they won’t have much of a choice – whether via higher taxes, higher fees or new tolls – if they want to keep driving in the state.
Contact Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.