Time is running short for the state to get a comprehensive transportation funding plan in place before the issue would be thrown into the tumult of next year’s election cycle.
Fewer than a dozen days remain in the 2013 legislative session that resumes on Tuesday.
If no agreement is reached by then or early 2014, the issue could get lost in a partisan back-and-forth once elected officials start concentrating on primaries, especially with races for governor, lieutenant governor and all House seats on the schedule.
“The term won’t end until December of 2014,” said Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown.
“The problem is that there will be an election cycle, and the closer you get to the election cycle, the harder it is to reach the compromises between the parties to be able to pass a bill that is this complicated,”
Earlier this year, during the budget process, the Senate voted 45-5 to approve a plan that would eventually increase annual spending for improving bridges, roads, public transportation, railways, ports, airports and trails by $2.5 billion per year.
The vast majority was set aside for bridge and road repair. Slightly less than $500 million was directed toward mass transportation.
Similar legislation, though, never got through the House.
Pennsylvania currently has more than 9,000 miles of roads and 4,000 bridges deemed deficient in some way.
“It’s not going to go away, and it’s not going to get less expensive (to fix),” said Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch.
However, House members remain divided over several key issues, including mass transportation funding and the prevailing wage.
The disagreement over providing additional funding for public transit exists even among local representatives.
Barbin’s 71st district includes areas serviced by CamTran buses.
“Mass transit’s a big issue here,” said Barbin. “It’s a big issue because, No. 1, senior citizens use it, and, No. 2, people get to work using it. We have a million riders of mass transit in Cambria County, so a bill that doesn’t have mass transit in it, there’s no chance I’m going to vote for it. I wouldn’t vote for a bill unless it had mass transit money in it.”
In comparison, Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar, whose 69th district consists of rural regions in Bedford and Somerset counties, does not feel mass transit should be emphasized. The Republican legislator has proposed re-allocating public transportation money toward infrastructure repair.
“Let’s deal with the bridge issue,” said Metzgar.
Meanwhile, some House Republicans and Gov. Tom Corbett have endorsed a plan that would change the requirements for paying union-level prevailing wages on certain construction projects. The rate currently kicks in once a state-funded project reaches $25,000. The GOP proposal would increase the level to $100,000.
Corbett called the increase “abundantly reasonable” during a recent stop in Pittsburgh.
“I’ve been told, and this is what our discussions are in Harrisburg, that if prevailing wage is in the bill, then the Republicans will have to pass the bill themselves. ... No Democratic votes will be included if prevailing wage is in the bill. That’s how it was when I left,” said Barbin.
Schoch added, “It clearly will affect the vote count.”
Much of the overall funding would be generated by removing a cap on taxes paid by wholesale fuel suppliers.
Opponents feel the change, along with increased driver’s license and vehicle registration fees, could financially hurt individuals and businesses.
“I just don’t think that now is the time for the largest tax increase in the history of Pennsylvania,” said Metzgar.
Asked if a deal could be reached to get the bill through the House, Metzgar concluded: “I don’t really see anything changing too much.”
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.