Road bill may face bumpy future

While the state Senate easily passed a $2.5 billion transportation funding bill last year, the outlook in the House is far less certain, especially amid concerns about the cost to drivers.

“[The Senate bill] details and encompasses more modes of transportation,” said Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg, including ports and rails on top of addressing Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges.

Of the $2.5 billion in new funding proposed under Senate Bill 1, about $1.9 billion would go to improving the state’s highways and bridges, with mass transportation and other areas receiving the rest.

Airports, shipping ports, railroads and walking and bicycling routes would split $115 million in the Senate’s bill.

Stern believes transportation will be included in a balanced budget by the end of June, but there will have to be compromises among the House, Senate and Gov. Tom Corbett to get it there.

Although SB 1’s funding is significantly higher than Corbett’s $1.8 billion proposal, both plans would be paid for in part by increasing the wholesale gas tax by an expected 28.5 cents per gallon over the next few years, which would give the state one of the country’s highest fuel-tax rates.

Currently, only the first $1.25 of the wholesale price of gas is subject to the Oil Company Franchise Tax.

SB 1 would gradually subject more of the wholesale price of gasoline to the tax annually for the next four years until it is levied on the full wholesale price.

The Senate plan also would up the fee for vehicle-related expenses, including increasing driver’s license fees from $29.50 for four-year licenses to $50.50 for six-year licenses. The vehicle-registration fee also would increase from $36 annually to $104 every two years.

The measure also would add another $100 surcharge for traffic-law violations as well as increasing the fees for the violations.

Stern said Republican leaders indicated earlier last week that transportation is among their top priorities, along with liquor privatization and pension reform, all of which they hope to accomplish within a balanced budget.

The state has passed a budget on time for the past two years; but Stern said, Corbett also indicated that he would be willing to work with state legislators longer if necessary, perhaps even through July, to make sure all issues were addressed and included in the final budget.

Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, said he would be disappointed if the budget deadline was passed over.

“It’s is our constitutional duty to get a budget in place [by June 30],” he said. “We need to do that.”

The Senate plan’s sponsor, Transportation Committee Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, defended the bill’s price tag by pointing to a national transportation report that stated poor infrastructure costs Pennsylvania residents $9.4 billion annually, with 23 percent of the 44,000 miles of state-owned roads listed as being in poor condition.

“When you look at those statistics, it is very clear that state residents are paying the price for our deteriorating infrastructure,” Rafferty said. “There is a cost if we don’t take action.”

McGinnis said he would not vote for the Senate bill for many reasons. Not only does he oppose the fee hikes, but he said he also believes almost 90 percent of the 28.5-cent wholesale gas tax increase will be passed on to the consumer.

Another big problem, he said, is with mass-transit funding, which would receive more than $500 million in the Senate bill, including the cost to convert to alternative fuels.

It’s unfair for taxpayers to be propping up transportation methods that cost more money than they make, especially considering that costs are much higher than what people pay.

For instance, McGinnis said a ride on Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority costs roughly $2 per trip, but the real cost is nearly double or triple that.

Taxpayers are picking up too much of the tab, he said, and legislators from those areas hold the rest of the state hostage by refusing to vote for transportation bills unless they get millions of dollars.

Majority House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Dick Hess, R-Bedford, said in a press release that he was pleased the Senate passed a transportation bill and that the process is moving forward toward “a full, fair and bipartisan agreement on this critical issue in our commonwealth.”

He said both the House and Senate have been working together and across party lines to make sure infrastructure is addressed and said he will continue to address transportation until a final decision can be reached.

“Time is not our friend on this issue,” he said. “We must act, and the steps are being taken.”

Stern said transportation needs to be addressed now while support is still high. “[These issues will be] at the forefront during the whole month of June,” he said.

Some of the pieces of legislation will be passed, he said, and the House will be moving on transportation.

But legislators likely will see many bills moved to conference committees made up of House and Senate members should each body be unable to reach consensus on a single proposal.

“What you’re going to see,” Stern said, “is a busy, contentious month.”

At this point, McGinnis said he is 99 percent sure a balanced budget will be passed on time, and there is a 50 percent chance of transportation being included.

Pension reform is the most interesting topic for him personally, he said, and he plans to present a bill before the state government committee June 19 that would require the state pension funds to present their liability accurately to ensure more transparency.

“We will have some drama with that,” he said.

The likelihood of pension reform going through is between 30 and 40 percent, he said, while serious liquor privatization reform is in the single digits.

“I hope three of [my predictions] are wrong,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.