Lawmakers pass transportation bill

HARRISBURG – Billions in new taxes and spending for roads, bridges and mass transit in Pennsylvania comfortably cleared a final legislative hurdle Thursday with a bipartisan vote to send a long-stalled bill to the governor.

The state House voted 113-85 to tax gasoline and raise motorist fees to ramp up over five years to at least $2.3 billion in annual additional funding.

Gov. Tom Corbett said in brief remarks at an appearance with a few dozen legislators after passage that he perceived an urgent need to address transportation infrastructure after taking office three years ago.

He said passage of the vote showed leadership and mentioned concerns about public safety several times.

“The longer we wait, the longer we put all of them at risk,” Corbett said.

During floor debate Thursday afternoon, supporters spoke of a dramatic need for road and bridge projects across the state and to help out the financially stressed mass transit systems that undergird regional economies.

“Everybody wants good roads and bridges and infrastructure, but nobody wants to pay for it,” said Rep. Mike McGeehan of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee. “Unfortunately, that’s not a reality. If we want to remain a first-class economic power it can’t be done with a third-rate transportation system.”

Opponents warned the new taxes will be a crushing burden to state residents and argued for cheaper alternatives.

“Every single item on the shelf has a potential to go up because of the increase in transporting these goods,” said Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren. “I am dismayed at this legislation.”

House passage came just three days after the chamber narrowly defeated the same proposal. Unusually for the House, substantial numbers of both parties voted for and against the measure.

Rep. Donna Oberlander, R-Clarion, said improved roads and bridges are critical to the economy in her rural district.

“Is this bill perfect? No, there isn’t a perfect bill,” Oberlander said. “But it does represent solutions for a diverse commonwealth.”

The first major transportation bill in six years increases a tax on gasoline at the wholesale level, which could boost prices at the pump by a quarter or more by the time it is fully implemented in five years.

It also imposes a range of higher fees and fines collected by the state Department of Transportation, and would link future increases to the rate of inflation.

Corbett vowed not to raise taxes, including motorist fees, during his campaign for the governorship, but during the Capitol news conference said simply that he did not agree that the transportation bill broke those promises.

He said there was no way to predict how much of the increase would be passed along to consumers.

“Will they pass some of that along? Yes,” he said.

Another provision changes “prevailing wage” rules for public works projects, saving local governments millions of dollars a year by waiving minimum pay requirements for projects worth less than $100,000. The current limit is $25,000.

It will allow the PennDOT secretary to increase from 65 mph to 70 mph the speed limit on certain highways, and direct a portion of the money to airports, ports, railways and walking and cycling routes.

The bill also contains tens of millions of dollars for discretionary accounts that lawmakers and Corbett administration can direct.

Corbett’s office said he will sign the bill next week.