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Transportation funding must be addressed

Gov. Tom Wolf’s new approach to identifying reliable long-term funding for Keystone State roadways and public transit systems faces numerous “potholes.”

However, what the governor is proposing — a study commission — is a reasonable start-up vehicle for separating suggestions lacking good judgment and merit from those deserving serious examination.

Up front, it is important for taxpayers to understand that even the best of what the commission might be able to offer at the time it ends its work about Aug. 1 might not be without potential for costly, unforeseen, unwanted consequences.

Evidence of that continues to reside within the issue of eliminating the school property tax and replacing it with revenue from other sources.

Suffice to say that a formidable task awaits the commission.

Nevertheless, transportation progress based on billions of dollars is what will be at stake in the immediate and distant futures.

The transportation funding crisis that is at Pennsylvania’s doorstep has been years — “decades” probably is the better word — in the making and will require more than a year or two to overcome, unless there is a substantial infusion of federal transportation money.

Even if there were a super-generous influx of federal money, the resulting sigh of relief most certainly would be temporary.

On March 12, Wolf introduced the idea of phasing out Pennsylvania’s gasoline tax — now the second-highest in the country, behind California’s — and replacing it with alternative revenue sources.

A similar, unsuccessful strategy directed at the local-level property tax was launched on the school-funding front years ago and resurrected several times since the idea first was put forth — also each time without success.

One of the big roadblocks to the proposed school-funding changes was that they did not guarantee that the real estate levy could not be brought back in difficult times — like now — perhaps burdening taxpayers more than they already were being burdened via the property tax.

But more than that, state politicians never felt truly comfortable that there could be enough money to fund the schools without the property tax.

A good question now is whether funding highways and mass transit in this state can ever be adequate without a high, even though somewhat smaller, gasoline tax.

Certainly, Harrisburg wouldn’t guarantee that the gasoline tax never would be returned to its current level, or be increased beyond what motorists currently are paying.

Is there the stomach within the Pennsylvania General Assembly for a big income tax increase on behalf of highway and mass transit funding? The answer is simple: No.

Yet, realities are realities. Beginning on July 1, 2022, the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s current $450 million annual obligation to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is scheduled to drop to $50 million annually.

Meanwhile, a proposal to add tolls to nine major bridges on interstate highways is drawing Republican opposition in the Republican-dominated state Legislature.

At the same time, the Biden administration in Washington has not finalized its thinking on how to pay for its massive agenda, leaving infrastructure-funding decisions unresolved.

Pennsylvania is in a “world of hurt” over the needed highway money, and the pain isn’t likely to go away anytime soon — certainly not on the basis of Wolf’s idea alone.

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