Pennsylvania’s roads, bridges and mass transit systems need help, and it looks like legislation to pay for the work is finally gaining traction.
Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a $1.8 billion plan for transportation funding in February. He said last week that he would now sign either of two plans that lawmakers considered in their previous session. “He wants a transportation bill on his desk,” state Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said Friday. “What passes both parts of the Legislature I believe he’ll sign.”
The risk factor, however, is that the legislation could again get gutted by politics if conservative members of the state House refuse to recognize that mass transit funding is critical for urban areas in the state, especially Philadelphia. In the previous legislative session, the Senate came together in bipartisan fashion to approve a transportation spending plan of $2.5 billion, but the House could not agree on the Senate version because of the predictable aversion to raising revenue — i.e., taxes — and paying for mass transit in Philly.
The governor’s proposal removes the cap on the tax paid by gasoline wholesalers and increases vehicle registration fees. Although this would not hike the gas tax directly, the higher tax on wholesale gasoline would likely be passed along to motorists, possibly raising the cost of gasoline by 25 cents a gallon. “Nobody’s asking for it — among everyday people — to increase their gas taxes. And nobody’s asking for fees, fines and surcharges to be increased,” House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Pittsburgh, said last week at the Pennsylvania Press Club.
Of course ordinary people won’t clamor for a tax increase, especially one that will hit them at the pump. Yet there would be a loud chorus of voices asking for state government to intervene if a bridge collapsed due to lack of maintenance. When the Legislature did not advance a transportation bill before it adjourned for the summer, Schoch announced that 1,000 bridges in Pennsylvania would be labeled with additional weight restrictions. “For months I’ve been explaining to Pennsylvanians and to lawmakers that there are very real consequences for not enacting a transportation funding plan,” Schoch said in August. “Without additional revenues anticipated in the future, I have to make the safe and responsible decision to reduce how much weight is crossing these deteriorating bridges.”
Schoch’s decision hit close to home. Lower weight limits are in effect for one state-owned bridge and seven local bridges in Erie County and eight state-owned bridges and 12 local bridges in Crawford County.
But Erie motorists don’t restrict their travels to this region; either do businesses. Across the state, 4,500 bridges have been labeled as structurally deficient. Erie’s economic future is also tied to development of the Inland Erie Port as a logistics hub. Moving goods through northwestern Pennsylvania requires good roads and safe bridges. Lawmakers should pass a strong transportation funding bill and tell citizens the truth: The time to pay this tab is long past due.