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Transit aid plan gains ground

House bill seeks to give counties more options to generate revenue

HARRISBURG — A House bill seeking to give counties more options to generate revenue for local transportation projects is getting consideration as part of an emerging debate over transportation funding.

The aim of House Bill 2068 is to allow counties to help local mass transit agencies, which are currently experiencing steep ridership and revenue declines due to the pandemic, said House Majority Transportation Committee Chairman Tim Hennessey, R-Montgomery.

The legislation is part of a transportation package unveiled by the House GOP Majority Caucus before COVID-19 hit Pennsylvania in March.

HB2068 would allow counties to levy a surtax up to 0.2 percent on local earned income, a surtax up to 0.25 percent on the sales tax and a tax on property transfers to generate this new revenue.

A county could use the revenue to offer grants to help local mass transportation and mass transportation organizations.

This bill is likely to wind up as part of any future state transportation funding package –just like what happened when the last package was enacted in 2013.

Act 89 of Act 2013 gives counties the option of adding an additional $5 vehicle registration fee to help fund local transportation projects.

So far, 25 of the 67 counties levied the fee starting at various times between 2015 and 2020 and collected a total of $121 million in revenue so far. The fee is collected by PennDOT and sent back to the county twice a year.

According to the department, the counties and revenue collected so far are: Blair $2.9 million; Cumberland $6 million; Allegheny $20.3 million; Bucks, $12.3 million; Dauphin $4.8 million; Westmoreland $6.9 million; and Philadelphia $15.7 million.

Other county collections include Chester $8.8 million; Cambria $2.4 million; Greene $695,000; York $7.8 million; Montgomery $12 million; Berks $6.1 million; Beaver $2.4 million; Centre $1.4 million; Lycoming $1.4 million; Mifflin $528,000; Schuylkill $1.6 million; Pike $666,000; Union $405,000; Erie $2.2 million; Luzerne $1.8 million; Butler $1.5 million; and Delaware $320 since enactment on May 24.

Fulton County enacted the fee in 2015 but repealed it in 2017.

HB2068 drew general support with some caveats from transportation groups during a recent House Transportation Committee hearing.

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania noted the optional taxes have figured in discussions on reducing property taxes as well.

“The association has sought for many years the option for counties to levy a county sales, personal income or earned income tax of up to one percent for the purpose of allowing counties to reduce their reliance on the real property tax,” said Mifflin County Commissioner Robert Postal. “We would welcome further discussion on using options for levying those taxes for transportation funding as well, with a focusing on leaving discretion on which tax to levy to each county.”

HB2068 could be improved by expanding the potential source of local revenue to include local service taxes, the hotel occupancy tax and parking fees and using its revenues for all types of local transportation projects as well, said Bradley Heigel, chief engineer of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards identified the King of Prussia Rail, Trolley maintenance and adding rail capacity as projects that could benefit from a new local revenue source.

While noting the local initiatives, Transportation Deputy Secretary Melissa Batula said a statewide solution to Pennsylvania’s transportation funding problems is still needed.

“Every community, whether rural or urban, will benefit from fewer bridge-related detours, longer-lasting road surfaces, more transportation options and more transportation predictability,” Batula said.

HB2068 is part of a package of bills calling also for transferring state police funding to the all-purpose General Fund from the Motor License Fund, accelerating the drawdown of the Turnpike Commission’s payments to the General Fund, changing the permitting process for road and bridge repair projects and updating contract standards to reflect advances in the concrete industry.

Yet to be addressed is the future of the mainstay state gasoline tax now generating less revenue due to more fuel-efficient vehicles and lately a decrease in traffic due to the pandemic.

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