Cranking up stalled transportation act

The recent collapse of a comprehensive transportation proposal in the General Assembly – when a bill passed overwhelmingly by the Senate stalled in the House – was an unconscionable demonstration of bad politics, according to Eric Wolf, general manager of Amtran.

Wolf testified last week at a State Senate Transportation Committee Hearing in Altoona, held to determine the effect of the House’s rejection of the Senate proposal.

The state needs the kind of all-encompassing solution the Senate approved 45-5 in a bipartisan effort, according to Wolf and State Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., a committee member.

The rural Republicans and big-city Democrats in the House who quarreled over the Senate proposal need to set aside partisanship and rural-urban biases and vote for the overall good, because transportation needs are everywhere, constituencies are interdependent and success requires broad support, according to Wolf and Eichelberger, R-Blair.

“We are all in this together,” Wolf said.

And if enough rural Republicans in particular don’t start acting like we’re all in it together, it’s not going to turn out well for this area, Wolf said.

Contention between rural and urban, Republican and Democrat, willing-to-spend and frugal, in-power and out-of-power – as well as a desire to leverage transportation funding to get liquor law reform – killed the bill, according to the pair.

The interests of people in those different categories are entwined, however, they said.

Rural House Republicans wanted to take money from mass transit, which caused urban House Democrats – and Republicans from nearby suburbs – to balk, according to Eichelberger.

But small cities like Altoona need public transit too, especially retail employees who use the bus to get to work, Wolf argued at the hearing.

“Mass transit is more than just SEPTA [the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority] and the Port Authority [of Allegheny County],” Eichelberger said. “These third class cities [like Altoona] – don’t forget about them.”

Some rural people don’t want their gas taxes to support mass transit in big cities, Eichelberger said.

But motorists in those big cities – despite the presence of big mass transit systems – still buy much more gas than people in rural areas, he said.

“There are so many more people to drive cars,” he said. “They pay for our road miles.”

People in rural areas get upset about the large amount of funding that goes to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for public transportation, Wolf said. But those cities are “huge economic generators” for the whole state, he said.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike’s revenue generation epitomizes that, according to Wolf.

If all the money collected at exits near the big cities went only to the cities and the rural areas were left with only money generated by their own exits, “we would get the bad end,” Wolf said.

Philadelphia area representatives are looking for congestion relief from a transportation bill, Eichelberger said.

Central Pennsylvania doesn’t have congestion, he said.

But rural Pennsylvanians can’t ignore urban needs, because area residents need large city dwellers to support our needs – some of are their needs too, he said.

The local needs include money for bridges, like those recently posted with weight restrictions to preserve them on the presumption that funding isn’t forthcoming.

Such postings will hurt rural people when school buses, milk trucks and log trucks need to take long detours, Eichelberger said.

The inefficiencies those detours cause can hurt people in big cities too, because of potential price increases for goods like milk, Wolf said.

Deteriorating roads and bridges can mean loss of opportunities you’ll never even know you had, Eichelberger said, echoing a hearing participant.

If a business owner scouting for a new location visits this area and notices deteriorated highway infrastructure – if he must take a big detour to get where he’s going – he may never consider development that otherwise might have happened, Eichelberger said.

Some House Republicans opposed the Senate version as a tax increase and as imposing burdens that are too large, Eichelberger said.

He regards the revenues in the bill as user fees and the burden necessary to avoid decay.

Some House Republicans want to stall transportation until the Senate passes liquor privatization, just as Senators want the House to pass a transportation bill before it acts on liquor – a standoff that may force adoption of simultaneous measures, Eichelberger said.

Some House Republicans favored the Senate version, but they waited too long to ask for Democratic help, Eichelberger said.

Some Democrats didn’t support the bill simply because they don’t want to support anything on Gov. Tom Corbett’s agenda, Eichelberger said.

Despite the House defeat, the Senate bill remains a triumph, because of its bipartisanship, its near unanimity, according to Wolf.

“For that to happen in Harrisburg, Washington or anywhere is amazing,” Wolf said. “It must have been a pretty good bill.”

He recalled experts in meetings 20 years ago talking about the need to explain to Republicans why they should take mass transit seriously, he said.

Many veteran Republican lawmakers have since come around – including Eichelberger, he said.

Still, many new lawmakers haven’t seen the need, so there’s work to be done, he said.

Senate Bill 1 would have generated an additional $2.5 billion though an increase in the oil franchise tax, currently capped; and increases in vehicle registration and driver’s license fees, along with longer periods between renewals, to save money, according to Eichelberger.

A dramatic rise in road construction costs and improving fuel economy that drives down tax revenues have contributed to the state’s transportation funding shortfall.

The House Transportation Committee pared about $500 million from the Senate version, according to the staffer.

The committee eliminated fee and fine increases and an automatic escalator, and it spread the application of the oil franchise tax increase from three to five years, according to the staffer.

While that didn’t get passed at the end of the state fiscal year June 30, it remains as amended on the House calendar for the fall, the staffer said.

The staffer said he

“couldn’t imagine a scenario” in which the House would accept as big an increase as the Senate proposed.

Former Gov. Tom Ridge failed twice to get a transportation revenue hike passed, and when he succeeded in 1997 on the third try, the original 10-cent gas tax hike had shrunk to 3.5 cents, according to the staffer.

A solution needs to be approved soon, according to Eichelberger.

If it doesn’t get done this year, it may not get done for several years, and that will only compound the problem, because the state is falling increasingly behind, Eichelberger said, echoing committee Chairman Sen. John Rafferty, R-Berks.

Lawmakers can’t forget anyone’s needs, Eichelberger said.

If a transportation bill isn’t “balanced,” it won’t work, he said.