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Highway Groups Push for $500M Gas-Tax Increase in PA

Wed December 03, 2003 - Northeast Edition

HARRISBURG, PA (AP) Advocates for highway contractors and their allies recently called for increasing the state gasoline tax by as much as 8 cents a gallon — $500 million a year — to expand the state’s highway and bridge improvement program.

Leaders of the Keystone State Transportation Funding Coalition cited an industry-funded study that said accidents, traffic congestion and vehicle damage resulting from deficient roadways cost the average Pennsylvania motorist $812 a year — $7.4 billion in all — in additional expenditures on such things as medical care, property damage, wasted fuel and repairs.

“It’s cheaper to fix the problem than it is to pay the price of these inadequate roadways,” said Frank Moretti, an analyst of The Road Information Program, or TRIP, which sponsored the study.

Sen. Roger A. Madigan, R-Bradford, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, joined leaders of the coalition, which also includes representatives of business, organized labor, farmers and local government, at a Capitol news conference.

Madigan said he hopes the proposed increase in the oil franchise tax — between 5 cents a gallon, which would raise approximately $300 million a year, and 8 cents a gallon, which would generate the half-billion dollars — could be folded into some sort of economic-development legislation.

Currently, the state collects 26 cents in taxes on each gallon of gasoline sold in Pennsylvania. The last increase, which amounted to 3.5 cents a gallon, was approved during the Ridge administration in 1997.

Winning approval for a gas-tax increase is certain to be an uphill climb.

Madigan’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Richard A. Geist, did not attend the news conference and a spokesman said the Blair County Republican would not support an increase unless Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, endorses it first.

“We’ve been through many of these and we know that leadership from the top is needed,” said Eric Bugaile, executive director of the House Transportation Committee.

A spokeswoman for Rendell, who is currently struggling to overcome GOP opposition in the Senate to educational reforms that would likely require an increase in the state income tax, said he would go along with the gas-tax increase only if legislative leaders do so first.

Rendell is “going to look toward legislative leaders for direction on if and how much the gas tax needs to be raised,” Kate Philips said.

A statewide poll, coincidentally released this week, showed that an increase in the gas tax is less popular among Pennsylvanians than any other broad-based tax increase.

Only 9 percent of the 1,502 adults surveyed by telephone between Sept. 4 and Sept. 28 said they would favor a gas-tax increase. Seventeen percent said they would favor increasing the sales tax and more than 60 percent favored increased “sin taxes” on alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and gambling.

The IssuesPA/Pew poll, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Economy League and the Pew Charitable Trusts, carries a sampling error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Madigan portrayed state gas taxes as “user fees” because the revenue they produce is earmarked exclusively for highway and bridge work.

“Everyone pays in direct proportion to what they use,” he said.

The TRIP report said 46 percent of Pennsylvania’s major roads are in mediocre or poor condition and that 25 percent of the state’s more than 22,000 highway bridges are considered structurally deficient — the third-largest proportion among all states.

One-fifth of the state’s urban interstates and other highways carry traffic levels that are likely to result in delays during peak travel hours, and the traffic fatality rate on non-interstate highways is more than triple the rate on interstates, the report said.

Overall in 2002, there were 1,614 fatalities on Pennsylvania roads — approximately one death every six hours, according to the report.