New Castle News

Closer Look

April 8, 2013

Higher gas tax to pay for road and bridge repairs

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. 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 Shoch joined lawmakers and community leaders in Sunbury to announce  the plan would provide $558 million to complete a Thruway project that has been on the drawing board for 30 years.

In March, Corbett, a Republican, announced transportation plan dollars would help provide 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 gas-tax plan funds 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 Corbett’s plan would set aside to repair 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 at 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 fund trains and airports.

Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria County, said it has been easy for lawmakers to say they will support the transportation plan since the notion that it will translate into higher 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 the state has not increased the gas tax 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, everyone will be asking why we didn’t do something,” he said.

But if the plan depends 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.

This sentiment is felt by many rural lawmakers.

“Car owners pay a gasoline tax, a registration fee, an inspection sticker fee, a drivers 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 County. “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 Pennsylvania citizens share in the cost of our transportation system.”

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)

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