This week could be the last chance for state House members to pass a transportation funding bill in the next 12 months. Both Democrats and Republicans need to do the right thing for Pennsylvania and get it done.
It was no easier in the 1990s, when Gov. Tom Ridge and state lawmakers faced a similarly woeful funding shortfall on roads, bridges and public transit. Yet they had enough backbone and dedication to find a revenue solution to maintain the state’s critical transportation infrastructure.
As a Republican governor, Mr. Ridge abhorred the notion of raising taxes. Yet he barnstormed the state, meeting with business associations, citizens groups, editorial boards and lawmakers to build support for a 3.5-cent hike in the gasoline tax and a 50 percent increase in the vehicle registration fee.
It was not the most politically advantageous cause for Gov. Ridge and many legislators, but it was the right thing for Pennsylvania.
In April 1997, the General Assembly approved a funding solution on votes that were closer than they should have been: 107-88 in the House and 26-23 in the Senate. Fast forward almost two decades later, and Pennsylvania’s elected leaders are confronted by the same predicament, yet this time fear and paralysis pervade the House — not the wisdom and fortitude to do what is necessary.
In June the Senate passed a comprehensive funding plan on a vote of 45-5. The $2.5 billion in additional annual revenue would come from lifting the cap on a tax paid by gasoline suppliers, raising fees for driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations and adding a surcharge to fines for traffic moving violations.
Three weeks later, a $2 billion funding proposal was approved on a 16-9 vote in the House Transportation Committee, but a bill has yet to move to the House floor. That could come this week. Any differences in a plan approved there would have to be OK’d by the Senate in order to go to Gov. Tom Corbett, who has stepped up his own campaign on the issue.
The best proposal that could go before House members is one similar to the Senate that is focused solely on repairing and maintaining Pennsylvania’s roads, bridges and transit systems. But passing legislation can be a messy enterprise, and oftentimes the most realistic bill is not the most ideal.
The need to properly fund the state’s transportation network is so great in 2013, however, that lawmakers cannot afford to let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
Democrats cannot afford to seek cynical political advantages for 2014 by withholding support for a reasonable funding package. Republicans cannot afford to be ideologues opposed to raising revenue through what are actually user fees when Pennsylvania’s need to maintain transportation is so great.
If the Legislature fails to approve a funding plan this month, lawmakers seeking re-election next year will try to talk their way out of why that happened. But there is no way to spin failure, and such a travesty will be on them.
Now is the moment to approve a new formula for how the state funds its transportation needs. If not, pothole-riddled roads and weight-limited bridges will be the least of an incumbent’s worries.