Raise transportation fees: We must fix our roads and preserve our mass transit systems

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It is heartening that a group of state lawmakers seeks to implement the proposals of Gov. Tom Corbett's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission despite the governor's inaction, so far, on his hand-picked commission's fair and necessary recommendations.

The deterioration of the state's roads and bridges and mass transit systems, along with poor air quality and cutbacks in public education, threatens to spoil Pittsburgh's image as one of the most livable cities in the nation. Just Wednesday, the Port Authority of Allegheny County announced that it will have to eliminate 46 routes, raise fares and lay off hundreds of workers by September absent state action.

The funding commission's recommendations would raise an estimated $2.7 billion in new revenue each year to repair and maintain our transportation infrastructure, including the mass transit system that is critical to Pittsburgh's economy.

A key legislator of the governor's own Republican Party, Centre County Sen. Jake Corman, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, last year backed a legislative package adopting the commission's recommendations. He told the Post-Gazette in October that succumbing to "political fear" instead of dealing with the dire condition of the state's transportation infrastructure would be "unacceptable."

Despite the governor's no-tax pledge, the senator argued that legislators and government officials "are not saving our constituents money by not doing this." Transportation networks take workers to work and goods to market. They carry the lifeblood of our economy. In addition, inaction now will only result in higher costs later for emergency repairs when our infrastructure fails.

Fear of taxes can be overcome to support vital public services. This region recently displayed fiscal courage in a couple of anti-Grover Norquist moments -- brief flashes of tax sanity in an era when elected officials cower before lobbyist Norquist, who has extracted no-tax pledges from state and federal legislators across the nation.

In November, city voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum for a 0.25-mill property tax increase to raise about $3 million per year for the city's strapped library system. Weeks later, facing the loss of $4 million in federal funding and $29 million in state funding, the Democratic majority on the Allegheny County Council approved a 1-mill property tax increase to avoid drastic cuts in human services and at the Community College of Allegheny County.

The transportation commission's proposals are nothing radical; they would cost the average driver an additional 70 cents a week the first year and $2.50 a week by the fifth year, according to Mr. Corman. Primarily making adjustments for inflation, they include removing a lid on the Oil Company Franchise Tax, raising the driver's license renewal fee by $5 for four years and increasing vehicle registration fees, which have not risen for more than 10 years, by $23 a year.

Considering the increased cost of goods and services in the private sector over the past decade or so, these proposals are not unreasonable.

In 2000, a ticket to see a first-run movie was as cheap as $2.50 at Century Square Plaza. A new Mazda Protege was listed at $11,889. A one-bedroom apartment in Highland Park was going for $325. Kuhn's Quality Foods was asking 79 cents for a 5-pound bag of Gold Medal Flour and $2 for 10 navel oranges.

Today, that bag of flour would cost $3.99 and each navel orange 89 cents. A similar one-bedroom in Highland Park: about $525. A Mazda 3 sedan: $18,490. And that first-run movie at most theaters around here: nine or 10 bucks.

Don't ask about the price of gasoline -- not to mention what's happened to the price of concrete, steel, labor, buses, rail cars and the other things that go into keeping up a transportation network.

It does not take a Nobel laureate in economics to understand that if fees and taxes in the transportation sector have been holding relatively steady, they have steadily been paying for less and less -- hence crummy roads, crumbling bridges and fewer buses.

Sen. Corman, certainly no tax-and-spend liberal, understands this, as do the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and many other business leaders. As Sen. Corman put it in October, it's "very clear that we have a transportation infrastructure problem in Pennsylvania" and that solving it should be a "top priority."

Steve Hallock is director of the School of Communication at Point Park University and author of a forthcoming book on press coverage in the buildup to the U.S. wars subsequent to World War II ( shallock@pointpark.edu ).


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