HARRISBURG -- With a weekend deadline looming, the state House Transportation Committee on Thursday approved a $2 billion funding bill for roads, bridges, public transit and other transportation modes.
The bipartisan 16-9 vote came after several days of behind-the-scenes maneuvering and advanced the bill to the full House. Whatever the House passes will have to be reconciled with a bigger transportation funding measure that was approved by the Senate earlier this month.
The House and Senate bills each rely heavily on lifting an artificial cap on the taxes paid by gasoline wholesalers, a move that could raise the price of gasoline at the pump. The House bill phases in the increases over a five-year span beginning this year, while the Senate version removes the cap in three years.
Unlike the $2.5 billion Senate bill, the House version does not raise vehicle registration or license fees or impose a $100 surcharge on traffic violations. It would, however, raise the fine for failure to obey traffic control devices -- a catch-all that police often use to cite offenders -- from the current $25 to $75, with the extra revenue going to mass transit.
House Republicans removed two provisions that Democrats had attacked as "ideological time bombs" -- language requiring transit agencies to offer their routes to private operators and eliminating union-level "prevailing wage" requirements on some local road maintenance projects.
As it was, four Democrats voted in favor of the amended House bill and six voted no. On the GOP side, 10 of 15 panelists voted in favor.
Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said after the vote that Gov. Tom Corbett, who wants a transportation bill on his desk by Sunday, was "pleased to see another bipartisan step forward. He expects to see a dialogue between the House and the Senate to get this passed."
The House measure funds transit at lower levels than the Senate bill, but significantly higher than the plan advanced earlier in the week by Republicans, providing $123 million in additional funding in year one and $312 million by year five. The earlier House plan had $48 million in the first year and $139 million by year five. The Senate bill increases transit funding by an estimated $510 million by the fifth year.
Under the House bill, transit agencies would have to secure additional local funding to match the state money -- 20 percent instead of 15 percent for operating dollars and 10 percent rather than 3.3 percent for capital funds. Local governments would have the option of enacting new taxes to generate that money: a 0.2 percent earned income tax, a 0.25 percent sales tax or a 0.5 percent real estate transfer tax.
Counties would have the option of imposing a $5 vehicle registration fee (in addition to the state's $36 annual fee) to fund local transportation improvements.
Members who voted for the House bill cited the risks of allowing the state's transportation system to continue to decline, invoking the specters of bridge closings, weight restrictions and even collapse.
"We've got 5,000 bridges that are in trouble and tens of thousands of miles of roads that are in trouble," said Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg.
Committee chairman Dick Hess, R-Bedford, said lawmakers tried to fashion a bill that wouldn't hit consumers too hard but added, "This is something that has to be done."
One dissenter, Rep. Steven Santarsiero, D-Bucks, said the House bill "does far too little to address the serious problems that we have," noting that the Legislature has gone since 1997 without increasing transportation funding.
Despite significant changes, it's not clear if the House bill goes far enough for the Senate.
"The negotiations are continuing," said Senate Majority Leader Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, though he said the bill was "a tremendous improvement."
"It's a step forward," said Minority Leader Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, though he said he would like to see additional revenue in the bill and more done to address transit funding.
Jon Schmitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1868. First Published June 27, 2013 12:15 AM