Corbett promises fund plan for transit and roads

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The transportation funding plan to be unveiled early next year by Gov. Tom Corbett will be accompanied by a detailed listing of projects that would move forward if the plan is approved, Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said Thursday.

A website will show what Mr. Schoch called a "decade of investment" in transportation improvements to be funded with the increased revenues generated by the governor's plan.

"I just think it's the right thing to do," he said in an interview before a speaking engagement here. "The public deserves to know what we're going to do with their money."

Mr. Schoch also said the governor's plan will address all modes of transportation, including a long-term strategy for funding public transit agencies like the Port Authority.

Asked about state House Majority Leader Mike Turzai's recent remarks that he wanted separate consideration of mass transit funding, Mr. Schoch said: "That's not our approach. That's not the administration's position."

While declining to provide details of what Mr. Corbett will propose, he said the plan would draw on recommendations made by the governor's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission last year.

The commission proposed lifting an artificial cap on the tax imposed on gasoline wholesalers. Currently the tax is levied only on $1.25 of the wholesale price per gallon. Eliminating the cap may add several cents to pump prices.

It also recommended adjusting license and registration fees for the inflation that has occurred since they were last increased in 1997, and indexing them to grow with future inflation. The commission estimated that adjusting the $36 annual registration fee to a present-day value would take it to $49.

The commission also called for cutting administrative costs by having motorists register their vehicles every two years instead of annually; doing away with the tiny license plate stickers; and renewing driver's licenses every eight years instead of four.

If the commission's proposals were adopted in full -- Mr. Corbett has hinted that he might not favor all of its suggestions -- a typical driver would pay $36 more in the first year and $132 by the fifth year, or about $2.54 per week.

Mr. Schoch said the state has potential revenue sources that were not in place when the commission issued its report.

The federal surface transportation authorization law, approved this year, gives states more flexibility, including opportunities to impose tolls to finance highway expansion.

A new state law allows public-private partnerships to fund transportation improvements -- a model used in 27 other states that typically has private investors helping to finance new highways in exchange for the right to collect tolls.

In remarks to the 12th annual Southwestern Pennsylvania Smart Growth Conference, Mr. Schoch compared transportation taxes and fees to utility bills.

A motorist who drives 12,000 miles a year pays about $30 per month in gasoline taxes and state vehicle fees, he said, or far less than what most people pay for cellphones and cable TV.

Because vehicles get better gas mileage and taxes and fees haven't been raised, "we're one of the few bills that you have that's gone down. In essence, your highway bill, your transportation bill, has gone down," he said.

Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining public transit systems, fixing bridges and paving roads has gone up and the state currently spends $3 billion per year less than it should to maintain its transportation network, Mr. Schoch said.

"Every year we don't address this, the number gets bigger," he said. "We aren't doing the kids of the next generation any favor by kicking this down the road any longer."

In a panel discussion following the speech, Port Authority CEO Steve Bland said having a long-term, predictable funding stream is at least as important as the amounts and sources of the funding.

"The most frustrating thing about the last five years is the constant turmoil" for riders faced with the threat of service cuts, he said.

Alex Scuilli, executive vice president for Highmark, said a survey of its employees showed that more than two-thirds use public transit to get to work and that 1,200 of the 3,300 respondents would have been impacted by the 35 percent service reduction in September that was narrowly averted.

"Seven hundred fifty had no idea how they would get to Downtown Pittsburgh" if the cuts were made, he said. "That's a frightening thought not just for us but for all employers."

Mr. Schoch said he was confident the Legislature will approve a funding plan, enough that he has set aside $50 million in the coming year for project design "to make sure we're ready to deliver more than just paving" if additional revenue becomes available.

Dan Cessna, PennDOT district executive for Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties, said a list of projects to be advanced with the new funding is under development.

state - Transportation

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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