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State officials wary of raising taxes for highways, bridge work

| Monday, Aug. 6, 2007

HARRISBURG -- Jeremy Plant tells his public administration students at Penn State-Harrisburg to always expect to have fewer resources in government than are needed to get a job done.

That's particularly true for highway and bridge maintenance, said Plant, a professor who specializes in transportation policy.

"We're in this political mode where no one wants to be accused of raising a tax, and there's only so much hocus-pocus," Plant said.

With last week's collapse of a major highway bridge in Minnesota, the safety of the country's highway and bridge network gained stature as a public policy debate.

In the past few years, policymakers in Pennsylvania and many other states have shied away from increasing taxes to pay for highways and bridges, causing bigger maintenance backlogs.

Plant and others cite various reasons, including the rising costs of construction and materials.

"When it comes to transportation ... politicians are loath to look the public in the eye and say, 'This is going to cost a lot of money,'" said Robert E. Latham, executive director of a Harrisburg-based road-construction industry group.

On July 18, Gov. Ed Rendell signed a bill that would provide an additional $532 million a year over the next decade for highway and bridge work in Pennsylvania. The plan, along with an additional $400 million-plus a year for mass transit systems, initially relies on borrowing by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission before the burden shifts to a series of toll increases on the turnpike and the addition of tolls on Interstate 80.

Still, that amount -- a roughly 22 percent increase over last year's state highway and bridge funding -- does not pay for all the work needed on Pennsylvania roads, officials said.

A transportation funding panel commissioned by Rendell reported last year that an extra $1 billion annually would eliminate roughness on all major state highways in five years and cut the percentage of structurally impaired bridges in half -- or down to the national average -- in 17 years.

Federal help isn't coming, either.

In April, President Bush's top highway official, Mary Peters, spoke in Harrisburg to support Rendell's effort to privatize the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Peters' message was that the states must get creative regarding transportation problems because there is not enough money in Washington.

Rendell's idea -- it would have been the nation's most ambitious privatization of an existing highway -- generated little interest from the Legislature, even though the governor insisted it could mean far more money than the plan lawmakers eventually approved. It surely would have meant higher tolls, as well.

Pennsylvania's last gas tax increase, in 1997, provided money for resurfacing the state's major highways. Now Pennsylvania's bridges and smaller highways are in need of similar help, said Craig Shuey, a top aide to state Sen. Roger Madigan, R-Bradford, who chairs the Transportation Committee.

Shuey said although drivers might not have paid more in road-improvement taxes since 1997, they pay in the form of wasted time and gas sitting in traffic, not to mention the punishment their vehicles take from rough roads.

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