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December 6, 2011

Transportation office looking beyond gas tax

---- — MARCELLA PEYRE-FERRY Journal Register News Company,writer


Getting the transportation system improvements Pennsylvanians want will cost money.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch explained how the state is looking at changes in transportation funding during the fall luncheon meeting of the Transportation Management Association of Chester County Wednesday.

"This series of speaking engagements is to advise everyone what we are doing in the department and also what's happening relative to transportation financing," Schoch said prior to the meeting held at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Uwchlan.

As cars become more fuel efficient, and drivers buy fewer gallons to go the same number of miles, the state's 12-cent per gallon gasoline tax is not bringing in enough money to pay for all the projects PennDOT would like to tackle, Schoch explained.

Decaying bridges and roads that are not adequate to handle the volume of traffic they receive are costing taxpayers and drivers, but there is a $3 billion gap between what is spent by the department, and what it should be spending.

"We either charge enough money to fix the problem or we charge you in a different way," Schoch said.

Drivers are paying for the lack of improvements now when they are wasting gas sitting in traffic jams or driving miles out of their way on detours, he added.

"If we don't invest, we keep passing the cost on to the next generation and the cost gets higher," he said.

According to Schoch one of the options being considered is some type of conversion to a mileage-based revenue system. This could be a change in vehicle registration fees to reflect a higher charge for those who drive more miles, he said.

Next year, a study is slated to begin on shifting to a mileage-based system and how best it could be implemented.

Schoch is also looking at the importance of investing in the Philadelphia port system. "Freight has to move through Pennsylvania if it's going to go to the Northeast," he said.

Another area where the Schoch recognizes a need for change is in public transportation where modernization goes beyond the cost of replacing buses.

To go to alternative fuels to reduce costs, there needs to be changes in the maintenance and support systems for those new vehicles.

"There's a one-time investment and continual investment to reduce the cost of bus fleets," he said.

In addition to funding changes for the future, the Transportation Department is already trying to cut costs. Already they have cut duplication between PennDOT and the Turnpike Authority. A web-based system for employee suggestions had been put in place as well, with 70 cost saving suggestions already put into action.

"There is a willingness to pilot ideas and try new things," Schoch said.

Changes at PennDOT have an impact on everyone in the state, local transportation officials acknowledged.

"I think you heard the secretary offer a number of options that need to be carefully considered. Certainly there are things that are in our control in the Commonwealth and things that are not. Tolling obviously, as he said, lies in the federal government hands," TMACC Chairman Steve Moore said following the speech. "Mileage-based costing is another thing that is being tested in other markets around the United States -- certainly in the Northwest, and that is an option to be considered."

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