The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

April 20, 2013

Mass transit is not a welfare program


JOHNSTOWN — Public transportation, and the funds generated within, are vital to all of Pennsylvania, contrary to statements made by Rep. Bradley Roae in The Tribune-Democrat, which were then reused in an April 11 editorial.

Roae listed the variety of fees and taxes that automobile drivers must pay as a justification for discounting the contributions of public transit riders. The editorial recommending Pennsylvania “stop the fraud” and “slash the spending” relies on tea party cliches and an offensive characterization of taxing gasoline distributors (not consumers) against the actual price of gasoline as “rape(ing) the motoring public.”

Public transit is more efficient than driving an automobile, and those who elect to minimize their impact on Pennsylvania’s infrastructure and air quality by traveling publicly should be rewarded.

Even without accounting for the costs of pollution and infrastructural wear and tear on the state, transit riders are still not taking more than they are giving.

Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority received $300 million from the state last year, its lowest allocation in 15 years. In spite of crumbling bridges and steadily reduced funding, SEPTA has been able to raise ridership to levels not seen in 23 years.

Although some politicians would like to ignore, or denigrate, Pennsylvania’s urban and suburban populations in an effort to promote cultural and economic divisions, the facts on state revenue streams coming into and out of southeast Pennsylvania’s mass transit are unavoidable.

Seventy-six percent of Pennsylvania transit riders use SEPTA, but only 63 percent of state public transportation funds are given to SEPTA.

Gov. Tom Corbett’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission recommended uncapping the wholesale gasoline tax and raising driver’s license and registration fees. Conservatives have attacked both measures and, while Corbett supports taxing the gasoline industry at real-time costs, he has proposed that, rather than a small raise in fees, Pennsylvania simply extend registration and license deadlines, shrinking overhead costs at state motor vehicle departments by an embarrassingly small margin.

Higher DMV fees would bring transportation funding to a level where Pennsylvanians would not have to lose tax dollars in the long-term demolishing and rebuilding of dilapidated bridges. The turnpike already has plans to do so in Lower Swatara Township.

Some conservatives are foolishly tied to no-tax pledges because they would rather cling to stubborn ideology than consider the actual needs of Pennsylvanians. If you can afford to buy a car, you afford to register it.

State leaders should be ashamed that they are quibbling over small fees to consumers and taxes levied on international fuel corporations while Pennsylvania is ranked first in the nation in structurally deficient bridges. More than 26 percent (5,906) of Pennsylvania’s bridges are listed as structurally deficient.

When considering either Corbett’s $1.8 billion plan or Sen. John Rafferty’s (advisory council approved) $2.8 billion transit budget, funds for SEPTA are overshadowed by the costs of renovating Pennsylvania’s bridges served by automobiles and public trains.

The longer Harrisburg waits to do these renovations the more expensive they become.

Forty percent of the state’s economic activity and payroll taxes are created in areas served by SEPTA. Public transportation is not a welfare program established to coddle those not responsible enough to purchase cars, as Rep. Roae believes. Accessible transportation is an economic necessity that fuels commerce in the state’s most-active region.

Rafferty has rightly pointed out that even though Corbett’s funding commission recommended between $2.7 billion and $3.5 billion in additional funding, once the state reaches about $2.8 billion the potential for public-private investment in the regions better served by properly maintained roads and bridges becomes possible.

It is unfortunate that some conservatives cannot see the private benefits of public transportation. In the past four years, SEPTA has purchased $1 billion in goods and services across the state.

Opposition to Rafferty’s transportation plan is nothing but the legislative branch of the petroleum industry trying to drive up fuel consumption while continuing to pay taxes on gas at $1.25 a gallon.

The Tribune-Democrat has endorsed using natural gas impact fees to fund transportation while it coddles the petroleum industry. Please leave any impact fees levied to providing those living in the Marcellus Shale industry with clean water.

Pennsylvania is already in the grip of the fossil fuel industry. Do not allow fuel purveyors to deny funding public transit and the infrastructure they have helped deplete with constant truck traffic.

It is wrong to favor corporations, whose profits leave the state, over responsible citizens who elect to conserve fuel by commuting publicly.

Russell Zerbo is federal advocacy coordinator for the Clean Air Council, a nonprofit environmental organization headquartered in Philadelphia.

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