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May 30, 2013 | By | Posted in General News

Lawmakers point to poor roads report amid PA transportation debate

By Gary Joseph Wilson | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania politicians seeking increased spending on roads and bridges point to a new report that outlines the unseen costs of the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

According to a report released yesterday by TRIP, a national nonprofit transportation research group, poor road conditions cost Pennsylvania drivers more than $9 billion dollars annually. The report states that the average driver in Harrisburg will incur $1,646 in annual expenses related to poor road conditions.

STANDING IN FRONT OF THINGS:
PA Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch points to the opening of a new bridge as an example of something that won’t continue continue without increased transportation funding.

The expenses result from congestion, automobile crashes and road-related damage to vehicles.

Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch on Thursday pointed to those costs as part of “the cost of inaction” on transportation infrastructure. “It’s also in the cost of moving goods and people around the commonwealth,” Schoch said.

The report also found that 37 percent of the state’s major roads and highways, as well as 42 percent of bridges, show significant deterioration.

Schoch and others who support a plan to spend at least $1.7 billion over five years for transportation infrastructure used the opening of a new highway bridge, just outside of Harrisburg, to draw attention to their cause.

Schoch said it was one of the last such projects the state would be able to undertake in the Harrisburg area without new sources of funding.

Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed uncapping the gas tax as a way to eventually generate $1.8 billion dollars over five years for transportation funding.

The proposal would affect the oil-franchise tax, a tariff applied to the wholesale price of gasoline. Currently, the tax only applies to the first $1.25 of the cost of a gallon, but Corbett’s proposal would gradually tax the entire cost of a gallon.

Corbett has argued that it’s a tax on gas stations, not consumers, and that drivers will likely not notice the tax increase due to the volatility in gas prices.

Senate Republicans have embraced Corbett’s plan to uncap the gas tax, but for them, it does not go far enough. They propose increasing Pennsylvania Department of Transportation fees for things such as drivers’ licenses and vehicle registration, as well as adding a new $100 surcharge on top of traffic tickets. 

Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, believes the coupling of fee and gas tax increases will generate $2.5 billion dollars in transportation funding over five years. Rafferty said Thursday the bill would go to the Senate floor for a vote next week.

Although the bill has not yet left the Senate, House Republicans appear hesitant to support Corbett’s proposal. But that may be changing. On Thursday, Rep. Dick Hess said lawmakers were waiting to see what the Senate passes, but that he was aiming for “something in between” what Rafferty and Corbett have proposed.

Hess acknowledged it’s not an easy lift. “This is something that really needs to be done and can be accomplished if we all work together,” Hess said. “I think the general public will understand that.”

The TRIP report also stressed that the number of annual traffic fatalities — around 1,300 — could be reduced by improving road conditions.

Corbett echoed the report. “It’s necessary for the safety of the people of Pennsylvania to develop a long-term sustainable plan…that brings us into the 21st century when it comes to our transportation funding,” he said.

Both transportation spending plans have general support from Democrats. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat, said Wednesday that every Pennsylvanian over the age 16 is aware of the state’s transportation infrastructure problem.

“We need a comprehensive transportation funding plan to fix our roads and bridges…Every day our transportation needs are not addressed it costs Pennsylvania drivers more money,” he said.

Any expansion of the gas tax will be a tough sell politically. Last year, a survey conducted by AAA Mid-Atlantic found that 62 percent of Pennsylvanians oppose any increase in the gasoline tax. In addition, the proposed uncapping of the gas tax could lead Pennsylvania into having the most highly taxed gasoline in the nation, according to a study by economist Rayola Dougher of the American Petroleum Institute.

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Eric Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent. He can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com or at (717) 350-0963.

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