The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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April 7, 2013

Pa. transportation plan banking on gas-tax hike

HARRISBURG — Call it Gov. Tom Corbett’s road show.

The state Legislature has yet to seriously take up the issue of transportation funding. But members of the Corbett administration have been traveling the state to publicly tie dollars for eagerly anticipated transportation projects to the funding plan.

It may be an attempt to head off opposition before it gets fully organized as the funding strategy relies on what could be a controversial tax increase of about 25 cents on every gallon of gas.

Last week, Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch joined a group of lawmakers and community leaders in Sunbury to announce that the plan would provide $558 million to complete a thruway project that has been on the drawing boards for 30 years.

In March, Corbett announced that money from the transportation plan would help pay for the subsidy needed to keep the Harrisburg-to-Pittsburgh Amtrak route running.

The Department of Transportation plans to release a complete list of projects that depend on funding from the gas-tax plan later this spring, said PennDOT spokesman Steve Chizmar. But, the department has already disclosed a dozen such projects worth a combined $1.2 billion in construction costs.

That is essentially the same amount that Corbett’s plan would set aside for repairs to state-owned roads every year once the plan is fully funded.

Because the gas tax increase is being phased in, Corbett’s plan would generate about $510 million in additional transportation funding in the first year and $1.8 billion a year by the end of five years.

The governor’s plan would devote an additional $1.2 billion to state-owned roads and bridges; $250 million more to mass transit;

$200 million more for local roads and bridges; and $75 million to a multimodal fund for trains and airports.

State Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, said that it has been easy for lawmakers to say they will support the transportation plan because the notion that it will translate into increased prices at the pump has not been widely recognized by the public. In addition, many Republican lawmakers have taken no-tax increase pledges. The governor, who has been adamantly opposed to tax increases himself, has tried to create some wiggle room. The plan is to lift the ceiling on a wholesale gas tax. Because of the ceiling, the gas tax is based on a top price of $1.25 a gallon even though gas now can cost three times that much.

Wozniak said that the state has not increased the tax on gas since 1997.

The tax increase is almost certainly needed because the state has to fix its roads and bridges, he said.

“If we don’t do something, and then a bridge falls down, then everyone will be asking why we didn’t do something,” he said.

But if the plan is going to depend on motorists paying more at the gas station, that kind of pain in the wallet is going to need to be shared.

“If there is going to be pain at the pump, then mass transit is going to have to have some skin in the game, too,” Wozniak said.

It is a sentiment felt by many rural lawmakers.

“Car owners pay a gasoline tax, a registration fee, an inspection sticker fee, a driver’s license fee. They pay sales tax when they buy their car; they pay sales tax on auto repairs; they pay sales tax on auto parts; they pay a tire tax; they pay a car lease tax; and they pay tolls to use some highways and bridges,” said Rep. Bradley Roae, R-Crawford.    

“Mass transit riders who do not own cars pay zero for our transportation system. They contribute nothing. If we consider raising the gasoline tax, we should also consider a mass transit tax so that all Pa. citizens share in the cost of our transportation system.”

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