Pennsylvania House committee readies for vote on amended bill for roads, bridges, transit

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HARRISBURG -- With less than a week to go before the Legislature is scheduled to recess, competing proposals to raise new transportation revenue are, to use highway parlance, miles apart.

An amendment drawn up by House Republicans and made public over the weekend generates far less money for roads, bridges and transit than the bill passed by the Senate in a bipartisan 45-5 vote this month. It also contains what one Democrat called "ideological bombs" like transit privatization and the elimination of prevailing wage requirements on some road work.

"It ignores the needs of our roads and bridges and ignores the needs of mass transit," said Rep. Michael McGeehan, D-Philadelphia, minority chairman of the transportation committee. "This isn't a serious effort. This is a nonstarter."

Rep. Joseph Markosek, D-Monroeville, said House Republicans have "seemingly gotten cold feet about solving Pennsylvania's transportation problems."

House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said the proposal was a "reasonable plan aimed at ensuring that public transportation, roads and bridges receive needed dollars yet not bankrupting the people paying the bills."

The House proposal, unlike the Senate bill, would not raise registration, license or other vehicle fees, and does away with a $100 surcharge on traffic violations that the Senate bill uses to fund public transportation. It also moves slower than the Senate bill in removing a cap on the tax paid by gasoline wholesalers, which means it will raise less money for roads and bridges but also spare motorists from sudden increases in pump prices.

At present, wholesalers pay tax only on $1.25 per gallon of the wholesale price; removal of the cap would subject the entire wholesale price to taxation.

By the third year, the Senate bill would fully remove the cap, adding about 28.5 cents per gallon to the tax paid by wholesalers, some or all of which could be passed on to motorists. The House measure, which doesn't fully remove the cap for 81/2 years, would add 12 cents to the wholesale gasoline tax by the third year. All of the money from what is formally called the Oil Company Franchise Tax must go to roads and bridges, according to the state constitution. It cannot be used for transit.

The sponsor of the Senate bill, John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, has estimated that it would generate $2.5 billion in new annual revenue for the state's transportation system by the fifth year. The House amendment would raise $1.1 billion by the fifth year and take 10 years to reach a $1.9 billion annual funding threshold.

Mr. Rafferty took to the Senate floor on Monday to urge passage of the measure by the House, saying $2.5 billion is a "low" but "practical" target for new transportation investment that was recommended by a commission empaneled by Gov. Tom Corbett. "We didn't just pull this number out of our hat. We used that which was given to us by the governor's handpicked commission," he said.

In addition to overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate, the bill has the backing of disparate groups including chambers of commerce and other business groups, labor organizations, engineers, contractors and AARP, he said.

Noting that neighboring states have passed aggressive transportation funding legislation, Mr. Rafferty said, "We'll take a big step backwards if we do nothing or something of little value."

The House measure also drew fire from transit advocates and Democrats because it sharply reduces the new revenue allocated to transit and includes other controversial provisions, including an increase in the local match for state funding from the current 15 percent to 20 percent and a requirement that transit systems offer 10 percent of their routes to private bidders every year.

Noting that public transit agencies emerged from the bankruptcies of private operators in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. McGeehan said the privatization proposal "shows a complete and total ignorance of what's happened in the past."

In Pittsburgh, Steve Palonis, president and business agent of Local 85, Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents Port Authority drivers and mechanics, said the bill would cause about 160 layoffs in the first year. It also could trigger a contract provision that would void the $30 million in concessions agreed to last year by union workers.

The Senate bill would generate more than $700 million in new revenue for the state's ailing transit agencies, including Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia and the Port Authority in Allegheny County, in the first three years, according to estimates made public by Mr. Rafferty. The House bill over the same period would generate $232 million, according to estimates released by Mr. Miskin.

The House amendment allows local governments to impose new taxes to raise money for transit, including a 0.2 percent earned income tax, a 0.25 percent sales tax and a 0.5 percent real estate transfer levy. Mr. Miskin said the proposal reflects GOP lawmakers' view that localities should raise a bigger share of the money needed to operate their public transportation systems.

The House Transportation Committee was scheduled to vote on the Republican plan at a meeting Monday morning, but the chairman, Dick Hess, R-Bedford, abruptly recessed the meeting, saying, in effect, that an amendment to the amendment was forthcoming. The panel may reconvene today. Mr. Corbett has said he wants a transportation bill on his desk by Sunday.

Tom Imholte, chairman of the state council of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said while the group prefers the $2.5 billion in revenue in the Senate plan, he was encouraged that House Republicans signaled their willingness to uncap the gasoline tax.

"This is the first time we've heard that the House is OK with the gas tax," he said. "The key thing is to get a major bill through that will help our infrastructure. The overriding concern is that we can't do nothing."

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Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. First Published June 24, 2013 1:00 PM


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