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January 29, 2013

Transportation plans debated

HARRISBURG — Days before Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to announce a transportation funding plan, there are divisions among lawmakers, some of whom object to lifting a cap on the wholesale tax on gasoline, while others maintain there is simply no other funding avenue available to generate the kind of money needed.

The governor’s plan to remove the cap on the oil and franchise tax, which is now set at $1.25 a gallon, is projected to generate $1.9 billion in revenue. One lawmaker said he had heard estimates that lifting the cap would translate into a 20-cent-per-gallon increase at the pump. Other lawmakers said they have not seen that, but most said they believed it would lead to an increase in pump prices.

A copy of the governor’s proposal indicates that plans to devote $1.2 billion for PennDOT to fix roads and bridges, $250 million in new revenue for mass transit, $200 million in revenue for local roads and bridges, and $75 million for “multi-modal” transportation including rail, aviation and port.

Corbett’s proposal would also hold the line on drivers license and vehicle registration fees, while extending the amount of time those documents are valid. Under the plan, drivers licenses would be valid for six years instead of four and vehicle registrations would be renewed every two years.

Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, said that he does not particularly believe that lifting the cap is the same as a tax increase. But, “the bottom line is, we need money to repair roads and bridges,” Yaw said.

Other lawmakers do not seem sold.

“It absolutely is a tax increase that will only get us halfway” to the $3.8 billion amount a transportation funding advisory commission suggested is needed, said Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton.

Haluska said lifting the cap on wholesale taxes will lead to an increase of about 20 cents a gallon at the pump. He said that any suggestion that the move would not be a tax increase would be a “ploy.”

Haluska looks to tolling as a more equitable way of paying for transportation.

Haluska said that the plan to toll Interstate 80 was rejected because the federal government would not endorse Pennsylvania’s plan to devote some of that money for mass transit. If the state were to rework its approach so that all revenue from tolling is devoted toward maintaining the roads being tolled, it is more likely that the federal Transportation Highway Administration would lend its approval.

Haluska said that tolling other interstates would relieve the financial stress being put on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

“Can’t we see the forest for the trees?” Haluska said. “If you toll a lot of our major interstates, the tolls won’t have to be as high on the turnpike.”

Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, the minority chairman of the Senate transportation committee, said lifting the cap on the wholesale gas tax is the easiest way to generate the almost $2 billion.

“We can’t do anything until the governor mans up and does what he has to do and lays his plan out so we can start negotiating,” Wozniak said.

The infusion of construction spending that would result from the governor’s transportation plan “would create 10,000 construction jobs,” Wozniak said.

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