State Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg, said Wednesday afternoon that this week's House debate over transportation funding has been "tumultuous, like being on a roller coaster ride at DelGrosso's Amusement Park in Tipton."
But despite the give-and-take, the torrid debate over an increase in the wholesale tax on gasoline and a higher threshold triggering prevailing wage requirements for transportation projects, Stern predicted the House will give its stamp of approval on the bill this evening, signaling the end to years of effort by the Corbett and Rendell administrations to address the state's crumbling bridges, deficient roads and mass transit and other needs.
Stern is a strong supporter of the legislation that will boost transportation funding by $2.3 billion annually at the end of five years, and he intends to vote for it.
But Blair County's state representatives are split on the issue.
State Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, said he has voted three times this week against the bill, and he said he will be casting his fourth "no" vote today.
McGinnis calls the transportation bill "a mugging of the Pennsylvania taxpayer."
He said it's the same old story in Harrisburg: When there is an issue, the Legislature reaches into the pockets of the taxpayer.
He said he will cast a negative vote even though he has favored an effort to increase the threshold in which prevailing wage requirements kick in for publicly funded transportation projects.
Currently, projects more than $25,000 must pay union or prevailing wages.
Under the transportation bill, which won broad Senate approval Wednesday, the prevailing wage limit will be raised to $100,000. All three area senators: Republicans John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, and Jake Corman, R-Centre, as well as Democrat John Wozniak, D-Cambria, voted for the measure.
Stern said the prevailing wage change will enable cities, townships and boroughs to extend money for much needed projects.
McGinnis said the increase in the threshold is not enough to make a difference. He added the bill does not contain any substantial reform and said there "is nothing to like about it."
Both Stern and McGinnis agree on one thing: The bill is likely to pass today, and Gov. Tom Corbett will likely sign.
The governor, who predicts increased funding means 50,000 new jobs, sees the legislation as an investment in the future of Pennsylvania.
It is estimated that after the fifth year, the bill annually will provide an additional $1.8 billion for highways and bridges, $500 million for mass transit and $144 million for airports, freight transportation and ports. Stern said the key to increased funding is a gradual rise in the oil company franchise tax on the wholesale price of fuel.
Some say that this over time will increase the cost of gasoline by 28 cents a gallon, but Stern said, "Nobody knows." Currently, oil companies only are taxed on the first $1.25 of the wholesale price of gasoline, a cap on the tax that was enacted in 1962.
The bill would raise the amount of the wholesale price subject to the tax over five years. Stern said he supports the change because it will not only provide needed funds for transportation improvements across the state, but it also means oil companies will be paying their share for those improvements.
Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Huntingdon, also will support the bill, pointing out that areawise his county is one of the largest in the state, which means that motorists have long distances to travel to work, school and the store.
He said many bridges in his district are facing weight limits because of their poor condition, which means, without repairs, his constituency will have to detour around them, increasing the time and costs for people and businesses.
Erin Waters-Trasatt, a spokeswoman for PennDOT in Harrisburg, said Wednesday that 800 state-owned bridges already are posted with weight limits, and another 1,700 locally owned bridges are restricted, an indication of how much work lies ahead.
Tara Callahan-Henry of PennDOT's District 9 office in Hollidaysburg said 26 state bridges in Blair, Cambria, Somerset, Bedford, Huntingdon and Fulton counties are restricted. She also said 299 state bridges in PennDOT District 9 are structurally deficient, and 676 miles of local road is considered in "poor" condition.