HARRISBURG — A bill that would boost state spending on Pennsylvania’s transportation systems by almost 50 percent while making the state’s fuel tax rates one of the nation’s highest received resounding support from senators Wednesday, but is headed toward an uncertain fate in the House of Representatives.
The 45-5 vote brought together rural conservatives and urban liberals in what proponents called a plan that would protect the safety of Pennsylvania motorists, provide a badly needed economic boost to the state and improve commerce and the quality of life in Pennsylvania.
If any senators had been wary of taking an unpopular vote to increase taxes, the bill’s sponsor, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Rafferty urged them to address a core function of government to protect health, safety and welfare.
“Do not let fear or what could happen make nothing happen,” Rafferty said. “We have to make something happen. … The worst thing we could do in Pennsylvania is do nothing. Then you’re going to see more bridges close, more bridges weight-restricted. We’re going to start losing more businesses.”
Two Luzerne County-based senators, one Republican, one Democrat, both voted in favor and offered their comments on the bill.
“This transportation bill is about public safety, economic development and jobs. Our transportation system is broken and desperately needs to be fixed. Pennsylvania roads and bridges are among the worst in the nation and that needs to change. We need to have confidence that our roads and bridge are safe,” said Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township.
“An updated and improved transportation system is vital for economic development and attracting new jobs to Pennsylvania. A viable, long-term solution to funding transportation will not only improve the quality and safety of our transportation infrastructure, but also create thousands of jobs and encourage business development,” Yudichak added.
Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, noted “The substantial and growing gap between the rising cost and number of transportation needs and available revenues that are flat-lining would have serious economic and safety consequences if left unaddressed. The bill approved by the state Senate incorporates a variety of funding measures to pay for a broader program than what Gov. Corbett originally recommended.”
“This is based on what we have been hearing from motorists, shippers, and community leaders who are desperately awaiting critical transportation improvements. More construction projects will increase the economic and job impact; more bridges rehabilitated or replaced will prevent tragedies. My support for this transportation funding measure should help leverage needed reforms, boost the prospects for action on priority projects within our region, and aid the push to make the maintenance money formula fairer for rural areas,” Baker said.
In the House, Republican leaders are skeptical of the bill’s $2.5 billion price tag, and time is ticking down to July 1, when lawmakers traditionally leave Harrisburg for the summer. Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, backs a more modest $1.8 billion proposal that he unveiled in January.
Both plans rely primarily on gradually increasing a wholesale gas tax by 28.5 cents a gallon over several years, giving Pennsylvania among the nation’s highest fuel tax rates. The Senate plan also would raise money by increasing fees on vehicle registration, driver’s licenses and traffic violations.
Corbett, who campaigned in 2010 on a pledge not to raise taxes or fees, declined to say last week where he stands on the Senate plan, and at least one top House Republican has suggested that consideration of the transportation bill could depend on how the Senate handles a House bill liberalizing the sale of beer, wine and liquor.
The funding increase approved by the Senate on Wednesday is nearly 50 percent of the $5.3 billion the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is spending this year on highways, bridges and transit systems. Business groups, engineering firms, highway construction companies, mass transit agencies and labor unions support the legislation.
Proponents say the money is badly needed and note that taxes and fees have not risen since the 1990s, while cars have become much more fuel efficient and inflation has increased the cost of road and rail construction. Currently, about 20 percent of the state-maintained bridges and highways are in need of repair, according to PennDOT. Meanwhile, public transit agencies routinely battle deficits to maintain services.
A Transportation Department spokesman said the agency was unable to provide a list of which projects would be completed with the money. However, he said the extra money could double the number of bridges that can be repaired over 10 years and knock down an existing backlog of about 4,400 bridges in need of repair by about 1,000. Without more money, Pennsylvania could see as many as 1,000 more bridges in need of repair in 10 years, he said.
About $1.9 billion a year would go toward highways and bridges. Another $510 million a year would go toward mass transit systems, including $60 million to help transit systems convert fleet vehicles to alternative fuels such as compressed natural gas.
About $115 million a year would be divvied up among airports, ports, rail freight and walking and biking routes, although up to $35 million would be set aside for related highway or bridge projects that are picked by the transportation secretary.