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Pa. Senate Highways Plan Would Up Ante 50 Percent

The Keystone State could raise a bonanza for its roads - at the cost of pain at the pump.

Sat May 04, 2013 - Northeast Edition

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) Spending on Pennsylvania’s highways, bridges and mass transit systems would get a big shot of new funding under a Senate plan unveiled April 16 that would raise the money by increasing motorist fees and wholesale gas taxes — bumping prices at the pump as much a quarter a gallon.

The $2.5 billion plan by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, is more ambitious and expensive than the proposal Gov. Tom Corbett advanced in January. The increase is nearly 50 percent of the $5.3 billion that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation currently spends on highways, bridges and transit.

Rafferty warned that the state’s bridges and highways are in dire need of repair, and contended that the plan would simply update taxes and fees to reflect inflation after going unchanged since at least the 1990s while giving the state’s economy a big boost.

"This is a sustainable funding plan," Rafferty told reporters at a news conference where he was backed by dozens of supportive lawmakers and representatives of transportation-minded groups. "This is not a one-shot deal. This is a significant piece of change that will move Pennsylvania forward."

Business groups, engineering firms, highway construction companies, mass transit agencies and labor unions support it and key Senate Democrats support it, as well. However, it could face rough sledding in the more conservative House of Representatives.

One supporter, Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, warned that the political will of lawmakers to increase taxes and fees will disappear once the Legislature recesses for the summer and election-year politics begin to set in.

"After June 30, not gonna happen," Wozniak said.

Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch estimated that Rafferty’s plan would cost the average motorist who drives 12,000 miles a year about $2.50 per week, or about $130 per year.

Schoch, who stood next to Rafferty at the news conference, said he had just begun to look at the plan and could not say whether he or the governor would endorse it. The overall cost would be about $600 million more per year than the governor’s plan.

About $1.9 billion a year would go toward highways and bridges. Another $500 million a year would go toward mass transit systems and about $115 million a year would be divvied up among airports, ports, rail freight and walking and biking routes.

The plan would get its money by boosting a wholesale tax on the fuel that gas stations buy, as well as by increasing fees on registration, licenses and traffic violations. Some of the money would be used to undo a $450 million-a-year transfer from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission that is contributing to the commission’s mounting debt bill.

The primary funding mechanism in the plan is the removal of the cap on the oil company franchise tax, which is linked to the wholesale price of gas and is presently assessed only up to $1.25 per gallon.

Rafferty’s plan would gradually apply it to the full value over three years, which could mean an increase of as much as 28.5 cents per gallon at the pump, based on the average wholesale price in use for 2013. Corbett proposes increasing the same tax but at a slower rate.

The Department of Transportation said repairs are needed on more than 23 percent of the state-maintained highways and nearly 20 percent of the state-owned bridges. Meanwhile, public transit agencies are battling deficits to maintain services.

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