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Pa. transportation bill passes Senate, will get one more House vote

| Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, 5:12 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Governor Tom Corbett holds a piece of concrete that fell from a bridge in Beaver county during a press conference under the Birmingham Bridge to discuss transportation funding at Riverfront Park on the South Side, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvanians will pay for the state's crumbling transportation system one way or another.

Their bill could be in the form of an increased gasoline tax, fees and other charges under consideration in Harrisburg to raise as much as $2.3 billion annually.

Or increasingly, they'll pay at the repair shop.

“I'm willing to pay more in gas prices to avoid those kinds of costs,” said Charles Greenawalt, a political science professor at Millersville University in Lancaster County, noting he paid $600 to replace tire rims ruined by potholes on two occasions.

Eric Bugaile, executive director of the House Transportation Committee, estimates a final version of the $2.3 billion plan, which the House could pass as early as Thursday, will cost the average Pennsylvania motorist about $2.50 a week when increased expenses are factored.

The bill allows county governments to impose a $5 fee on each vehicle registered in their counties. That would be on top of the state's registration fee, which would increase in two years. The county fee could generate $55 million a year statewide for counties to use to fix locally owned roads and bridges.

And the bill contained a little-talked-about provision to allow PennDOT to raise the speed limit from 65 to 70 mph on some stretches of Pennsylvania highways. Traffic safety studies would be required, the bill stipulates, and PennDOT or the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission would have to agree, depending on which agency owns the highway.

State leaders have pointed to the sad state of Pennsylvania's roads and bridges to draw attention to the lack of money in recent years, often making pronouncements beneath crumbling bridges — as Gov. Tom Corbett did under Downtown's busy Liberty Bridge this summer.

But locally owned bridges are in worse shape.

PennDOT data show about 17 percent of 25,315 state-owned bridges are structurally deficient, compared with about 35 percent of the 6,400 locally owned spans. About one-fifth of state-maintained roads are in poor shape, but PennDOT does not track the condition of locally owned roads.

“This bill recognizes a lot of things for local government that have been ignored for years,” Bugaile said.

In addition to giving counties the option to impose the $5 registration fee, the bill would set aside $220 million a year in liquid fuels tax for local transportation projects, a 60 percent increase.

“I have always been a proponent of giving local governments more options to raise revenue other than property taxes,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

About 29 percent of the 382 county-owned bridges are structurally deficient.

Allegheny County has about 942,000 registered vehicles, PennDOT records show, meaning the registration fee could generate as much as $4.7 million annually.

Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi said his county won't seek to impose the registration fee, even though about half of its 150 bridges are unsound.

“I don't want to put more of a burden on Washington County taxpayers,” Maggi said, noting the county is “in the catbird seat” with money coming in from its booming shale gas drilling.

Some motorists say they wouldn't mind coughing up extra money.

“I could live with paying a little bit more at the pump or for my registration, if I knew it would do some good. But I feel for the people living paycheck to paycheck,” said Sarah Spilka, 70, of Hampton.

Said Joe Lampart, 68, a salesman from Whitehall: “Transportation is important. The money for it has to come from us somewhere.”

For owners of passenger cars, the state's yearly registration fee will go from $36 to $37 starting fiscal 2015-16. Driver's license renewal fees, the cost of some traffic tickets and prices at the gas pump would go up.

The Senate approved the plan, 43-7, on Wednesday, a day after the House approved the bill after twice voting it down on Monday. The House will give final consideration on Thursday, said Stephen Miskin, a House Republican spokesman.

The legislation includes language that was necessary for House passage, said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County — a provision lowering the wages governments must pay on public projects under $100,000. The language dealing with wage scales was added to attract conservative Republican votes.

“We either compromise with the House or stay where we started in S.B. 1 and stay in a stalemate,” Pileggi said of an earlier $2.5 billion Senate bill that stalled in the House.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa tried unsuccessfully to knock the so-called prevailing wage language out of the bill. Costa, D-Forest Hills, said he supports boosting funding for roads, bridges and mass transit.

The bill lifts the cap on the wholesale gasoline tax. Even supporters acknowledge that cost will be passed onto consumers, possibly increasing pump prices up to 28.5 cents a gallon.

“Let's be honest, will the traveling public be paying more? The answer is yes,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre County.

Brad Bumsted and Tom Fontaine are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Bumsted at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com. Reach Fontaine at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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