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Pennsylvania lawmakers, road experts foresee lean days ahead

| Wednesday, April 21, 2010

HARRISBURG — Magic numbers worth billions of transportation dollars are 102 in the state House and 26 in the state Senate.

That's how many votes are needed to constitute majorities in each chamber in order to raise taxes and avert a funding crisis impacting roads, bridges and public transit across the state.

But that's not likely to happen soon, based on comments Tuesday at the 50th anniversary meeting of the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association, an industry-supported group

Two key legislative leaders from the region and another from Blair County predicted not only that the Legislature won't muster the votes necessary to raise taxes but also that Gov. Ed Rendell will be struck down in his latest attempt to address the problem.

Rendell has called a special legislative session May 4 to focus on transportation funding.

Sen. J. Barry Stout, of Bentleyville, Democrat chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he expects Rendell's plea to receive scant support from lawmakers in view of other state budget problems and "a pension tsunami" that's also in search of a solution.

State Rep. Joe Markosek, of Monroeville, Democrat chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said colleagues show no enthusiasm for raising taxes, "especially not in an election year."

State Rep. Rick Geist, of Altoona, Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said if lawmakers don't solve the funding crisis soon, "then we aren't going to get it done for the next three years."

Later, state Transportation Secretary Allen Biehler was equally pessimistic.

"My guess is that the odds are stacked against us," he said. "We're talking about filling a $2 billion-a-year gap."

Consequently, while higher gas taxes and motor vehicle fees might be postponed to another day, motorists can expect fewer miles of repaved roads, more closed and weight-restricted bridges, no new capacity construction, and a delay of projects already on the books, such as replacing the closed Charleroi-Monessen Bridge.

Without an infusion of money, highway and bridge spending that amounted to $2.8 billion for the current year is projected to drop to $1.8 billion for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and to $1.5 billion for 2011-12.

The drastic cuts come when PennDOT says it has only half of the money it needs to properly maintain 40,000 miles of state-owned roads and 25,000 state-owned bridges to keep Pennsylvania competitive.

Lawmakers have not raised taxes and fees to buoy the Motor License Fund since 1997. Nevertheless, at 32.3 cents a gallon, Pennsylvania still has the 10th highest gas tax in the United States.

But it's the upcoming loss of two temporary — albeit major — revenue sources now that puts PennDOT at the brink of financial disaster.

One is $1.4 billion in federal economic stimulus funding about to run out. The other is $2.5 billion that the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has borrowed and has been giving to PennDOT in anticipation of the federal government approving the tolling of Interstate 80, a proposal that the feds have rejected twice.

The turnpike payments end June 30, when the current year's subsidy of $900 million will drop to $450 million annually — $200 million for roads and bridges, $250 million for transit.

"It's a sobering problem," Markosek said. "The numbers are huge and the funding gap continues to grow. We're teetering on the edge of bankruptcy."

Stout has championed transportation funding for decades and will be leaving office at the end of the year.

He suggested a combination of taxes might be politically acceptable, including raising the current $36 motor vehicle registration fee to $50, transferring $200 million in state police costs from PennDOT to the General Fund and removing a "cap" on an oil franchise tax that's imposed as if gas still sold for $1.25 a gallon.

He, Markosek and Geist suggested Rendell might be wasting his time talking about transportation funding when ideas he proposed during the first seven years of his administration have failed.

Although Rendell appointed a bipartisan, nine-member Transportation Funding and Reform Commission that recommended raising $900 million a year for roads and bridges and $760 million a year for transit, he did not embrace any of its revenue-raising provisions.

His plan to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private consortium failed to materialize and proved the historic highway would not generate nearly the $30 billion he envisioned.

His plan to lease I-80 to the turnpike was opposed by residents and businesses along the corridor as well as being pooh-poohed by the Federal Highway Administration.

Nevertheless, the turnpike raised tolls by 25 percent and is obligated to raise them by another 3 percent a year to pay $2.5 billion to PennDOT as "transition money" and continue to subsidize it to the tune of $450 million a year.

Finally, Rendell's idea to impose a 6.17 percent tax on oil company profits was quickly squashed by critics and the oil industry, which threatened protracted and expensive legal opposition.

The message that the PHIA-affiliated Associated Pennsylvania Constructors is now delivering to lawmakers and the governor is this, said Bob Latham, its executive vice president: "Get it right."

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