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Falling short

Corbett's transportation plan does little

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Posted: Thursday, February 7, 2013 2:00 am

The tale of the state of Pennsylvania’s road and bridge infrastructure is in the numbers.

Consider these: 5,906 structurally deficient bridges that carry an average of 22.7 million motorists every day; 9,200 miles of roads in poor condition that ferry 31,000 school buses carrying 1.5 million children to and from school every day. And cash-strapped mass-transit systems that are the only means of getting around and getting to work for thousands more.

During his annual budget address Tuesday, after more than 18 months of waiting, Gov. Tom Corbett finally rolled out a plan to underwrite repairs and reconstruction to an aging infrastructure that not only hurts the state’s economic competitiveness but also endangers its citizens.

Mirroring the recommendations included in an August 2011 report from a committee helmed by Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch, Corbett proposed raising $1.8 billion over five years for infrastructure repairs and reconstruction.

The backbone of that proposal is a plan to lift the cap on the state’s wholesale gasoline tax, which would add — at full implementation about 28.5 cents a gallon to the levy.

That would wipe out the savings in the 2-cents-a-gallon reduction in the flat tax paid by motorists at the pump, which is also included in the funding proposal.

And some, or all, of that wholesale tax hike would likely be passed along to motorists at the pump. Pennsylvanians already pay 32.3 cents a gallon in taxes at the pump, the 15th-highest rate in the nation, according to the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association.

The funding plan also calls for biennial renewals for motor vehicle registrations and six-year renewals (up from the current four) for driver’s licenses. Motorists would pay $72 for the two-year registration, double the one-year fee of $36, for instance.

The state has not raised gas taxes since 1997. And with the advent of more fuel-efficient cars, collections have withered, cutting off one of the main sources of revenue for highway repairs.

Corbett, who ran on a pledge to not raise taxes, described lifting the cap as “deregulation.” And in his speech to lawmakers he said lifting the cap “is not a new tax,” nor is he “increasing the rate of the existing tax.”

And with hundreds of millions of dollars in business tax breaks embedded in the budget plan, including a proposed phase-out of the corporate net income tax, we expect oil companies will grin and bear it when it comes to the cap.

Both the business leaders who make up Corbett’s base and the public (via polls) have said they’re willing to pay more in exchange for smoother roads and safer bridges.

And while Corbett’s proposals are laudable — it’s long past time the administration took on the seemingly intractable funding problem — they still fall well short of the $2.5 billion in new funding recommended by the Schoch report or the $3.5 billion recommended by another study.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, said he’s already planning a public hearing next week on the funding question. And in interviews Tuesday, Rafferty said it’s going to take additional revenue to meet the recommendations in Schoch’s report.

In a budget plan filled with politically difficult proposals (liquor privatization, anyone?), the transportation package is as close to a lay-up as lawmakers are likely to get this year.

Lawmakers, with Corbett’s active participation and leadership, should craft a funding package that includes the full $2.5 billion in Schoch’s report before the current fiscal year ends on June 30.

Harrisburg Patriot-News

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