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December 19, 2012 | By | Posted in Legislature

Lawmakers promise transportation funding debate in new year

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

A TRANSPORTATION IMPROVEMENT PLAN is on many wish lists of Pennsylvania lawmakers.

HARRISBURG — Republicans and Democrats in the Pennsylvania statehouse seem to agree on at least one thing: Not another construction season can go by without addressing the state’s aged infrastructure.

But this unity may splinter when Gov. Tom Corbett reveals his plan early next year, a plan where the main components are still unknown.

Senate Democrats were the latest group of legislators to feed the anticipation, laying out their priorities for long-term transportation needs at a Wednesday morning press conference. The lawmakers said they’re hoping to see a long-term plan that addresses highways, bridges, mass transit and rail.

And, they want the conversation to be bipartisan, while encompassing both urban and rural needs, said Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, who is minority chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

“We’re asking the governor to square his shoulders. We’re willing to sit and work and negotiate side-by-side with all four caucuses and the administration,” Wozniak said. “This is too important to let slide by for one more construction season. The time is now for us to make a very bold decision.”

According to administration officials, those decisions might not be that far off. Kelli Roberts, a spokeswoman for the administration, said that the governor will release a plan sometime next month.

Roberts said Corbett and Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch are using the Transportation Funding Advisory Commission report as “a basis of options.” That report outlined ideas for generating $2.5 billion in new annual revenue to put toward transportation.

“The number one focus is making sure this is a long-term plan,” Roberts said, adding that the governor is “committed to getting this done this year.”

The problems are well-documented. The state maintains 25,000 bridges, about one-fifth of which are “structurally deficient.” Out of some 40,000 miles of road, more than 8,000 miles are rated in poor condition.

Roberts said she could not give specifics on Corbett’s plan, like whether it would encompass infrastructure changes as well as mass transit funding and reform.

Sen. Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said that the caucus wouldn’t entertain a conversation about transportation that didn’t include mass transit.

“We’ve known this for a decade, if not longer, that this has to be a collective conversation where both sides of the equation have to be addressed,” Hughes said.

This sentiment is shared across the Senate aisle. Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, said that Senate Republicans also believe infrastructure and mass transit funding should be addressed in concert, “as it always has been in the past.”

The real issue, Arneson said, is timing, with the goal to get something done by early 2013.

But on the House of Representatives side, opinions begin to diverge. Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said that separate proposals to change mass transit funding will be be introduced soon.

“The last time roads and bridges were dealt with was 1997. Mass transit has gotten extra funding separately since then,” Miskin said. “We need to see what’s in the governor’s proposal, and Representative Turzai and other members are going to introduce some legislation with reforms to mass transit.”

COSTA: Said that TFAC report is a starting point for long-term transportation funding.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny,said that he supported using the Transportation Funding Advisory Commission as a starting point. But some lawmakers would like to see more short-term funding, in the form of federally issued GARVEE bonds that let states use future allocations for immediate funding, he said. GARVEE bonds, known as Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles, allow states to get money in advance of federal highway funding.

Other than the bond issue, the caucus stopped short of addressing how to come up with the revenue for long-term improvements.

Potentially upping the wholesale tax is a recommendation in the TFAC plan that could raise up to $1.3 billion annually towards transportation funding, but could affect gas prices.

“We need to see what the governor is going to recommend before we jump out and say specifically what we’re going to do,” Costa said of revenue streams.

Contact Melissa Daniels at melissa@paindependent.com

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Melissa Daniels is a reporter for PA Independent. She can be reached at 717-350-0962 or Melissa@PAIndependent.com

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