The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

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May 14, 2013

Support for transportation plan, gas tax hike no solid

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania senators hit the highway Tuesday at the end of their May session without confronting a bill that would pour billions into road and bridge repairs and construction and raise the price of gasoline in the state.

By the time the Senate returns to Harrisburg in June, the Department of Transportation hopes to have a $50,000 special website operating that will spell out exactly how the agency plans to spend $1.9 billion a year for road and bridge work as part of the push to get the legislation passed before the summer break.

Steve Chizmar, a PennDOT spokesman, said the “Decade of Investment” website is being created by agency staff and consultants. The agency can justify the spending because even if the transportation bill does not pass, PennDOT will use the website to inform the public about road projects, Chizmar said.

But while the transportation plan is under consideration, the website will demonstrate how much road work will be done if there is no special funding for roads and bridges and how much can done if Senate Bill 1 is approved. The lobbying campaign seems necessary because if the measure passes the Senate, as expected, it may run into a roadblock in the House of Representatives.

Senate Bill 1 would provide the $1.9 billion a year for road and bridgework, plus another $600 million a year for mass transit and other types of transportation.

The bill depends on Gov. Tom Corbett’s plan to lift the cap on a wholesale gas tax to generate most the money needed. But the Senate version of the legislation also calls for a variety of increased fees, including hikes in the cost of tickets for moving violations, to provide even more money.

There is a general sense in the Legislature that the state needs to do something to repair its crumbling road and bridges. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed skepticism about the way the legislation would generate the new money and how the state is planning to spend it.

“I don’t think the governor has done a very good job making the case for the transportation plan,” said Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County.

Opponents have found ample room for criticism. Last week, Capitolwire quoted from an email from Rep. Daryl Metcalfe to a colleague in which the Butler County Republican expressed little interest in supporting the transportation plan. Metcalfe said that funding SEPTA in Philadelphia is “subsidizing a minority of our population’s bus fare, which is just more welfare.”

Metcalfe’s sentiments echo a perspective that other conservative lawmakers have maintained all spring.  Democrats are leery of the transportation plan too.

Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence County, said that when the legislature went down the transportation funding road a couple years ago, tolling Interstate 80 was the best plan.

“It wasn’t popular,” he said. “But it was the least painful.”

It is still less painful than asking every motorist to absorb what will amount to a 25 to 30 cents a gallon gas tax increase, Sainato said.

Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia County, was one of the members of the transportation committee who voted in favor of the plan.

There are 650 of Pennsylvania’s 25,000 state-owned bridges that are weight-limited. Gordner pointed to data distributed by Sen. John Rafferty who noted that if Pennsylvania used the same standard as Connecticut, that 14,000 Pennsylvania bridges would have weight limits.

Gordner’s support was helped by the fact that one of the few projects that PennDOT has already tied to the transportation plan is the $600 million Central Susquehanna Valley Thruway in Snyder and Northumberland counties.

Sainato added that it makes no sense to design a transportation plan that includes massive new construction projects when the purported purpose is to repair crumbling infrastructure.

“I don’t think that’s the way it should be done,” Sainato said. “Any new money should be used to fix roads and bridges” instead of building new roads and bridges.

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