HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania state senators gave their approval Wednesday to a major transportation spending proposal that proponents hope will end a long journey to modernize travel in the state and stem its rising backlog of bridges, highways and mass transit agency facilities in need of repairs.
The Senate’s 43-7 vote on the $2.3 billion bill came after Republicans angered Democrats by employing a rarely used parliamentary maneuver that kept them from stripping out a provision to reduce wages on some road projects.
Otherwise, the Senate has been a driving and bipartisan force behind the effort to respond to studies that for years have told lawmakers that Pennsylvania’s spending on its extensive highway system, aging bridges and deficit-strapped mass transit agencies was woefully inadequate.
The proposal, which is supported by Gov. Tom Corbett, could leave Pennsylvania with among the highest fuel taxes in the nation and higher motorist fees that will rise with inflation.
“Yes, to the citizens of Pennsylvania, we are going to be asking you to dig deeper into your pockets,” said Sen. John Wozniak of Cambria County, the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee. “We are not happy about it, but we have the responsibility to govern and to make difficult decisions. It has been almost 15 years since any gasoline taxes in Pennsylvania have been raised. I don’t think there is any place in the private sector that has not raised their prices in 15 years.”
However, Wozniak and other lawmakers also said the greater good is at stake, including tens of thousands of jobs, the safety of people on the roads and Pennsylvania’s economic competitiveness. They warned the cost of doing nothing would be too damaging.
“I don’t know of a successful business in this country that didn’t invest in themselves at some point in time,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre. “This is a great investment in ourselves.”
The Senate passed a similar bill in June — the wage provision was the biggest difference — but the more conservative House had struggled to respond until this week. With an election next year, the tax increase could be publicly unpopular, but the money would begin funding projects in the spring and potentially provide a visible example of the results.
Approval is expected Thursday in the House, where conservatives objected that it would be the second-largest tax increase in state history. The chamber signaled its support for the measure in a 106-95 preliminary vote on Tuesday under considerable pressure from Corbett, the Senate and business groups and labor unions that support transportation legislation.
The proposal would raise gasoline taxes and registration, licensing and other motorist fees to spend $2.3 billion a year more on transportation, an increase of about 40 percent over the amount the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation currently spends. A small slice of the money would go to airports, ports, railways and walking and cycling routes.
It would allow up to $60 million per year in capital grants to help mass transit agencies convert fleet vehicles to compressed natural gas or another alternative fuel. Meanwhile, tens of millions of dollars more would go toward transportation-related discretionary accounts controlled by lawmakers and the transportation secretary.
In a reference to that money, Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny, said the bill carries $50 million a year in WAMs — short for “walking-around money,” a term for grants that have existed in one form or another for at least a couple of decades and are built around the concept of providing lawmakers with a pot of money to spend as they see fit.
“This bill has WAMs,” Ferlo said. “Republicans don’t like to admit it. They refer to it as discretionary spending.”
WAMs have a reputation of being used by governors or legislative leaders on rank-and-file lawmakers’ pet projects as a reward for supporting top-priority or controversial legislation. Ferlo said he hoped the grant money in the bill will be used for high-priority projects that are evenly distributed geographically.
Others said the money would enable the state the flexibility to respond to unexpected sudden needs, such as flood-damaged bridges and infrastructure improvements to attract business development.
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