HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) Lawmakers usually nervous about casting an election-year vote to raise taxes will began a special session to address Pennsylvania’s perpetually old and ill-maintained network of highways, bridges and mass transit systems.
The debate arrives at an especially inopportune time, since state government is facing a severe budget crunch for the second straight year.
On May 4, Gov. Ed Rendell delivered an address to a joint session of the House and Senate and is leaving the door wide open to ideas.
“He’s not putting a specific proposal on the table … and he’s willing to discuss any and all reasonable ideas to fill that funding gap,” said Rendell’s press secretary, Gary Tuma.
The network was already considered underfunded weeks ago when the federal government rejected Pennsylvania’s application to add tolls on Interstate 80 to collect more than $470 million a year for transportation causes.
That prompted Rendell’s call for the special session.
The money was supposed to be part of $2.9 billion in highway and bridge improvements and $1.6 billion in state and federal support for mass transit in the fiscal year beginning July 1, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Currently, the network is considered to be wanting for well over $1 billion a year.
Rendell advocates robust infrastructure spending as a long-term economic good, arguing that it boosts the businesses that do the contract work and supply the materials while improving Pennsylvania’s appeal to employers looking to relocate or expand.
He may have allies in the business community. The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry views infrastructure building as a central role of government and supports a reasonable increase in the gas taxes or registration fees that support highway and bridge work in Pennsylvania.
“They really function as user fees,” said chamber Vice President Gene Barr. “If you use the road, you pay for the road and we think that’s fair.”
A penny per gallon increase in the gas tax — on top of the 31.2 cents per gallon tax Pennsylvania already imposes — would yield about $62 million a year, according to PennDOT.
For now, roughly 20 percent of the state’s highway miles and bridges are in poor condition, contributing to a maintenance backlog of $14 billion, PennDOT said. The Rendell administration has whittled down that backlog — but siphoned dollars away from congestion relief to do so.
For lawmakers, there’s always the option of doing nothing.
That might be the result in a Legislature that is bitterly divided by geography when it comes to sharing money for a mishmash of largely local transportation needs.
In addition, the upcoming November election may encourage legislators to clear the decks of sensitive votes, especially since Pennsylvania just received $1.7 billion in federal stimulus funding for transportation projects.
Then there’s the option of plugging the hole with borrowed money. The state is borrowing $325 million this year for bridge repairs and transit projects.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, said he is planning hearings on public-private partnerships — arrangements in which a private company shares the cost and profit from building or operating things like new toll roads or bridges.
Rafferty said he also is exploring nontraditional ways of funding transportation, but declined to say what those are.
Even so, pairing up with private companies is unlikely to address the majority of the state’s needs, said critics.
House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Markosek, D-Allegheny, said profit-seeking companies might be attracted to heavily traveled routes, but they’re unlikely to be interested in the thousands of rural or lesser-traveled bridges that need attention.
Raising taxes or fees now to fix problems will save money on maintenance later, Markosek said — but those votes will be difficult to find.
Jeremy Plant, a professor of public administration and policy at Penn State-Harrisburg, bemoaned the nation’s lack of commitment to transportation needs. Poland, he noted, is making a bigger commitment to high-speed rail.
“Where do we go?” said Plant. “We go toward congestion and poorly maintained highways and a lack of any forward thinking about what the system for the future will be.”
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