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PennDOT chief opposes gax-tax cut

| Thursday, May 10, 2012, 5:35 p.m.

PennDOT Secretary Allen Biehler said he hopes a recently proposed 14-cent cut in the state gasoline tax is running on empty.

Biehler visited Murrysville on Thursday to formally announce $20 million in state discretionary funding to complete the next phase of the Route 22 reconstruction project.

The $42 million "BO2" project extends 4.1 miles from the Cozy Inn Cut-off to the cloverleaf at Route 66.

He did not hesitate in voicing his opposition to the proposal by state Rep. Peter J. Daley, a Washington County Democrat. Daley proposed cutting 14 cents from the 25.9 cents in state taxes on a gallon of gasoline for six months to give state motorists relief from spiraling prices at the pump. Most of the gas tax goes to fund state road projects.

"I don't know how we could catch up," Biehler said, referring to highway and bridge projects already lacking the money to be undertaken or completed. "The amount of backlogged projects that we have, that are not even on our programs, is staggering."

Biehler, who noted that Gov. Ed Rendell opposes the cut, put into perspective what it would mean in dollars and cents.

"A penny in gas tax yields about $63 million to $65 million a year," Biehler said.

That means the temporary gas tax cut would cost the state between $441 million and $455 million in revenue in a six-month period.

The effects could extend beyond major state road and bridge projects down to the repair and maintenance of local roads. Some of the tax money is returned to municipalities annually for that purpose in the form of liquid fuels funds. Biehler said he was not sure how much of the $350 million returned to the communities would be affected.

"If you reduce the tax money that funds all those programs, what amount will come out of those repairs?" Biehler asked. "That's a good question."

Biehler said some legislators are looking at a projected state budget surplus of about $500 million, figuring it could offset the lost gas tax revenue. However, he said what has been done to this point is just a projection, and that legislators must be sure the state's financial house is in order and the surplus is there before they try to use it.

Three state legislators who attended the Murrysville event expressed either outright opposition to the proposed tax cut or lukewarm support at best.

"I truly have mixed emotions about it," said state Rep. John Pallone, a New Kensington Democrat. He said the tremendous pressure that gasoline prices have put on consumers makes anything that would give some relief appealing, but yet the money is needed for road projects.

"The long-term impact could be devastating because of the loss of revenue," Pallone said. "I support it on a very short-term basis only because the long-term impact will affect the budget process in Harrisburg."

State Sen. Don White, an Indiana Republican, and state Rep. Joe Markosek, a Monroeville Democrat, said they opposed the idea.

"I can't support road projects and then turn around and vote to cut the gas tax that supports the road projects," White said.

"I think it would be bad public policy," Markosek said. "I'm totally against it. It took us too long and we've worked too hard to get some of that to support our roads."

Markosek and White said the proposal does not appear to be getting the support to move through the General Assembly for approval.

Biehler referred to the gasoline tax during his remarks about the BO2 project to several dozen citizens and area officials at the Murrysville Municipal Building.

He thanked Markosek, who has more than 20 years in the General Assembly, for voting for the gasoline tax increases when they were proposed years ago, and the taxpayers who paid the tax daily. He said that is the source of financing for Route 22 reconstruction from the Monroeville line to the Cozy Inn Cut-off and the BO2 project.

A member of his staff handed out maps of Route 22 showing how the two Murrysville sections are part of the overall plan to make Route 22 four lanes all the way from Monroeville to Altoona. Six sections have been completed; three are under construction; and seven sections will be done in the future.

Biehler said the commitment was made to concentrate on Route 22 because it is an important east-west highway and "an important part of the national highway system."

"It looks like in 2008 or early 2009, we should be completely done," he said.

Biehler and the legislators all acknowledged the efforts of Murrysville Mayor Joyce Somers who, with former councilman John Cardwell, pushed hard for 11 years to make the Route 22 project a reality.

Last year, she made the case for the BO2 project at a public hearing and personally lobbied Biehler and the state legislators to provide the money to finish the Murrysville section. Biehler responded by putting up the needed $20 million from the discretionary money he oversees to apply to deserving projects.

"Your mayor over here, she knows how to bark and she knows how to bite, too," White told the gathering.

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