Road to transportation policy detoured

Lawmakers volley ideas for funding, wait for Corbett's call

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HARRISBURG -- State legislators turned their attention to transportation funding Tuesday at a hearing where the Pennsylvania auditor general warned turnpike tolls are headed skyward.

Lawmakers and the administration agree that Pennsylvania needs to change how it pays for transportation infrastructure. In August 2011, a transportation funding advisory commission appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett issued a set of recommendations for increasing revenue and lowering costs. More than a year later, legislation addressing the problem has yet to make headway in either chamber.

At the joint hearing held Tuesday by the Senate and House transportation committees, Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery and chairman of the Senate panel, said both Republicans and Democrats in his chamber want to move forward with changes to transportation funding.

"I'm looking forward to the two legislative houses to put forth a program for transportation funding for not just tomorrow but down the long haul," he said.

Top House Republican leaders said last week that on big-ticket policy issues, like transportation, they'll wait for signals from the Corbett administration on its priorities and proposals.

"The system on the bigger issues works better when we work from a governor's proposal," said House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, adding that it gives the legislative bodies a "starting point."

Kelli Roberts, a spokeswoman for Mr. Corbett, said the governor has met with legislative leaders about transportation funding, but she said the administration has not determined if it will unveil its own proposal or develop one with legislators.

"He continues to have meetings and work with the Legislature," she said. "I can't commit to any sort of timeline at this point, and whether that would be one big plan or a number of things they work on, that hasn't been fleshed out."

Mr. Corbett's main concern is that any transportation-funding proposal "does not put more strain on our taxpayers," Ms. Roberts said.

Auditor General Jack Wagner, a Pittsburgh Democrat, told the lawmakers Tuesday that taxpayers could be on the hook to pay off a turnpike commission debt that has grown from about $2.5 billion in 2007 to $7.8 billion today. Debt payments now equal 47 percent of revenue to the commission, he said.

"What all of you keep hearing -- and it's what irritates me the most -- is that this is OK," Mr. Wagner said. "This is not OK. This has to change, and it's really within your hands and the governor's hands to change it."

He recommended lawmakers repeal a 2007 law that requires the commission to provide $450 million each year for improvements to roads, bridges and public transportation in the state.

Representatives of the turnpike testified the commission could meet its obligations by increasing tolls about 3 percent each year. A financial adviser told lawmakers there is strong demand for bonds issued by the turnpike.

"The issue here is a choice of how do you finance it," Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch said after the hearing. "His feeling is that running into debt on the turnpike is not a good choice, and I respect that opinion. I think from our perspective though, as we said today, we can manage it at the turnpike."

state - Transportation

Laura Olson contributed. Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.


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