Corbett panel's transportation plan would cost drivers, improve roads

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If the Legislature adopts recommendations of Gov. Tom Corbett's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, drivers likely would pay a few cents more for a gallon of gasoline, and higher registration, license and other vehicle-related fees.

They would register their cars every two years instead of annually, and those tiny license plate stickers would be eliminated to save money and allow for online renewals.

Driver's license renewals would be every eight years rather than every four, and private companies would be authorized to administer tests to new drivers.

The panel also called for increased fines for some traffic offenses and deployment of red light enforcement cameras, which are legal only in Philadelphia.

Over the long run, the commission's proposal also would mean smoother roads, better bridges, expanded road capacity and an easing of funding woes that have forced public transportation agencies to cut service.

Mr. Corbett appointed the commission of 40 volunteers from all sectors of the transportation industry to address an estimated $3.5 billion annual shortfall in funding needed to maintain the state's infrastructure and transit systems.

The panel came up with $2.7 billion of suggestions, the biggest of which were ending a cap on the tax on wholesale fuel prices and raising various vehicle and registration fees to adjust for the inflation that has occurred since they last were increased.

A typical motorist -- someone who owns one car with average fuel economy and drives 12,000 miles per year -- would pay $36 more in the first year and $132 more by the fifth year, when all elements of the proposal were implemented.

That works out to $2.54 per week, noted commission Chairman Barry Schoch, the state's transportation secretary. "That's less than the price of a gallon of gas to make a substantial upgrade to our transportation network," he said.

The commission called for lifting a cap on the Oil Company Franchise Tax, which is paid by fuel distributors. Currently, the tax applies only to a maximum of $1.25 per gallon of the wholesale price.

Without the cap in place, the current per-gallon tax would be 13.8 cents higher for gasoline and 18.7 cents higher for diesel. The plan phases out the cap over five years.

Mr. Schoch and commission member Bradley Mallory, a former PennDOT secretary, said past experience is that distributors don't pass along all of the higher costs to consumers, but Mr. Schoch said he wanted the computation of the cost to drivers to show the worst-case scenario.

He also said lifting the cap would not break Mr. Corbett's campaign promise not to raise taxes, because the rate of the tax -- 15.35 mills on gasoline and 20.85 mills on diesel -- would not change.

Pittsburgh Transportation Group, which operates Yellow Cab and the SuperShuttle airport service, issued a statement saying it was "deeply concerned" about the impact of the commission's proposal.

"Our independent contractors, the cab drivers and SuperShuttle operators, must pay for their own fuel, so it is easy to see how hard the impact will be with lifting the cap on the Pennsylvania Oil Company Franchise Tax. Raising the price of gasoline by another estimated nearly 14 cents a gallon would create serious financial hardships for our drivers. Increasing vehicle registration fees will also have a direct impact on our bottom line," the company said.

The annual fee for registration hasn't been raised since 1997. Adjusting it for inflation that has occurred since then would take it from the current $36 per year to $49.

Stretching out the time between registration and driver's license renewals would increase convenience for drivers while saving the state $5.5 million on reduced paperwork, the commission estimated.

The panel called for reducing the number of driver's license centers from 71 to 60, having them open weekdays only, charging $15 for road tests and authorizing private companies to offer testing as well.

In urging authorization of red light enforcement cameras, the panel said they have reduced intersection crashes by 25 percent in other states. The commission also called for speed enforcement cameras in work zones to reduce the burden on state police patrols.

The plan would increase fines for some traffic violations by $50 and add a $100 surcharge to vehicle offenses that result in points against a driver's license.

The final version of the commission's plan included changes to the formula for funding public transportation, in response to concerns from transit advocates that an earlier draft relied on revenue sources that were flat and unstable.

It also eliminated a requirement that local governments provide a 30 percent match of state funding for transit instead of the current 15 percent.

The proposal would provide $200 million in new transit funding in year one, rising to $428 million by the fifth year. The impact on Port Authority, whose chronic funding problems caused a 15 percent service reduction in March, was not immediately clear.

"The hard work by the commission and Secretary Schoch through the last few months is obvious and now we will carefully review the details," authority CEO Steve Bland said. "We appreciate their effort and can tell the recommendations are well thought out."

The plan would generate $511 million in highway and bridge funding in the first year, and up to $2.3 billion by the fifth year, for state and local governments.

The panel recommended that PennDOT oversee a study of doing away with the gasoline tax as the principal means of funding transportation. Mandates for improved gas mileage and the growing use of alternative fuels are making the tax inadequate and obsolete.

One option that will be studied is a fee based on miles traveled rather than fuel use.

The commission's recommendations, approved in unanimous voice votes during a conference call on Monday, will be reported to the governor by Aug. 1. The report also will describe how the additional spending will benefit Pennsylvanians as well as the consequences of doing nothing, Mr. Schoch said.


Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/roundabout . Twitter: @pgtraffic.


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