The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 4, 2013

Transit funding pushed

Corbett to seek $250M increase

John Finnerty
CNHI

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett’s transportation plan, to be announced today as part of his budget address to a joint session of the Legislature, will include a request for an additional $250 million in funding for mass transit, according to details provided to lawmakers last week.

A western Pennsylvania lawmaker who objects to raising a gas tax to pay for mass transit, said that the sum could easily be generated by modest increases in fares. Last year was a down year because of Superstorm Sandy, but ridership on the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) can reach 400 million a year.

The increased funding for mass transit is just a portion of the transportation spending. A copy of the governor’s proposal given to lawmakers indicates that Corbett is planning to devote $1.2 billion for PennDOT to fix roads and bridges, the $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 ports.

The increased funding is expected to be paid for by lifting the cap on the oil company franchise tax, a move that would generate close to

$2 billion, but will also likely lead to an increase in the price of gasoline at the pump.

Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford, said that there is too much questionable spending involved in mass transit, so he does not believe any of the new investment ought to be used to further subsidize those systems.

PennDOT estimates that state and federal subsidies provide about $500 million to SEPTA each year, roughly the same amount provided by local revenue. In comparison, smaller transit authorities tend to depend more heavily on state and federal aid, though the total amounts of their subsidies are much smaller.

Federal and state subsidies accounted for almost $100 million to “other urban” transit authorities, while local support chipped in $39 million. In rural transit agencies, federal and state subsidies provided

$19 million, compared to just over $4 million in local funding, according to PennDOT.

Roae said that information on the SEPTA website indicates that bus drivers receive 10 percent raises each year. Roae added that a county transportation system in his district recently spent $3 million to build a new office and now wants to spend another $1 million for a new garage.

“I do not support raising the gasoline tax so that SEPTA can keep giving 10 percent raises to new bus drivers for four years in a row or the Crawford Area Transportation Authority spend-ing millions of dollars to build buildings they do not need,” Roae said.

“Nearly everyone supports having mass transit, but the people riding should be paying the cost and the mass transit agencies need to adopt responsible spending habits. I think

bus riders should pay

50 cents more for each trip rather than making automobile drivers pay higher gasoline taxes to offset what bus fare should really cost.”

The executive director of a statewide transportation advocacy group countered that it would be unfair and unwise to diminish funding for mass transit or increase fares.

“The question shouldn’t be: ‘Who should pay more?’ It should be: ‘How can we all contribute fairly to the costs of the services we need?’ ” said Pete Javsicas, executive director of PenTrans, based in Philadelphia.

“Every time you cut back on mass transit, people who drive are tremendously inconvenienced because of the gridlock,” Javsicas said. “That’s why I say we are interdependent.”

PennDOT data show that more than half of the riders using urban mass transit are workers or students.

Rural mass transit riders tend to be senior citizens and those using the system for transportation to medical appointments.

Javsicas said that many rural residents who are accustomed to relying on the use of their personal automobiles may not appreciate how important mass transit is to those who need it.

“If you don’t use mass transit, it’s easy to say, we ought to raise fares on mass transit,” said Javsicas.

 

Things to watch for in Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget address:



Pensions – The governor has been warning for months that he hopes to make public pension reform a priority. Democrats have warned that any attempt to modify pensions for existing employees, even by tinkering with future benefits, will be challenged in court. Due to the legal uncertainty of the strategy, it is unclear if the questions will be settled or challenges resolved in time for the final budget.

 

Education funding – Corbett has signaled that he hopes that license fees associated with privatizing the sale of liquor will generate $1 billion for block grants for education over the next four years. The governor has indicated that the state’s contribution to higher education will remain unchanged. He has not stated publicly what change, if any, there will be to the state basic education funding.

 

Transportation funding – Details provided to lawmakers by the governor’s office indicated that the keystone of his transportation plan calls for lifting the cap on the oil company franchise tax, a tax on the wholesale price of gasoline, would generate close to

$2 billion. A transportation funding advisory commission study estimated that for every dime that the wholesale price increases, the price at the pump increases 1.5 cents.

The tax is capped based on a cost of $1.25 a gallon, even though the state’s last calculation of the wholesale price of gasoline put it at $3.11 a gallon, meaning the price at the pump would increase almost 30 cents, based on the commission’s analysis.

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