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Proposed Pennsylvania transportation funding overhaul put on idle

| Tuesday, June 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Pennsylvania's House Transportation Committee chairman pumped the brakes on Monday on his proposal to overhaul a Senate bill that would boost transportation funding by $2.5 billion annually.

Late in the morning, Dick Hess, R-Bedford, abruptly recessed a House Transportation Committee meeting on funding, saying the committee was “waiting on another amendment.” Hess spokesman Ray Smith later said “other discussions have begun,” declining to elaborate.

Government leaders and transportation officials across the state expressed concern over Hess' amendments, which House Democrats leaked during the weekend. The amendments would “eviscerate funding to mass transit across Pennsylvania,” said Bill Patton, press secretary for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont.

“Frankly, I think they're having trouble getting Republican support for this amendment,” said Rep. Michael P. McGeehan, the transportation committee's minority chairman, calling Hess' amendments “totally out of left field.”

Democrats estimated Hess' plan would take 10 years to generate an extra $2 billion a year for transportation.

Three plans before lawmakers would get most of their money by lifting a cap on the oil company franchise tax that wholesalers pay, but Hess would uncap the tax over 10 years while the Senate plan would do so in three years and Gov. Tom Corbett's proposal in five. Hess' plan would scrap a proposed decrease in liquid fuels taxes.

Transit funding would take a hit under Hess' plan, with House Democrats saying Pennsylvania agencies would get a combined $681 million over five years, less than half the $1.4 billion under the Senate plan for the same period.

Hess would eliminate the Senate's proposed $100 surcharge on traffic tickets, a plan that would generate a combined $458.8 million for transit over five years.

Hess' plan also would require Port Authority of Allegheny County and the Philadelphia-based SEPTA to seek bids from private companies to run at least 10 percent of the agencies' routes, House Democrats said.

“The private sector is only going to provide the service that it thinks it can make money off. If it can't make money on the routes it bids for, then what?” said Chris Sandvig, regional policy director for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group.

Steve Palonis, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, which represents more than 2,000 Port Authority drivers and mechanics, said the union was analyzing the amendments.

“We've already put a lot of skin in the game to help keep transit here,” Palonis said of labor concessions in the last three contract talks. “They (legislators) keep moving the goal posts every time you turn around.”

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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