Transportation bill clears Pennsylvania Senate

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HARRISBURG -- The state Senate easily passed legislation Wednesday to raise billions in new annual revenue for roads, bridges and public transit, leaving a less enthusiastic House of Representatives to take up one of Gov. Tom Corbett's signature initiatives.

The governor has urged legislators to approve new funding to maintain and upgrade the state's network of transportation infrastructure. The proposal that cleared the Senate would generate approximately $2.5 billion in new annual revenue by the fifth year, in line with the recommendations of an advisory commission convened by Mr. Corbett and more than the governor himself proposed in February.

As in Mr. Corbett's plan, a large portion of the new revenue would come from removing a cap on a tax paid by gasoline suppliers. The tax currently is assessed on only $1.25 of the per-gallon price. The bill's prime sponsor, Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery and chairman of the Transportation Committee, told colleagues on the Senate floor it is hard to predict how this change would affect the price of gas.

"There have been questions: Will this be passed to the pump?" he said. "We don't know for certain. We do know, in conversations, that they are worldwide companies. How they absorb it, or if they will pass it all through, is a matter of speculation."

In addition to applying the tax to the full wholesale gas price, the proposal would raise license and registration fees and tack a surcharge onto fines for moving traffic violations.

Both Mr. Rafferty and Sen. John Wozniak of Cambria County, the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee, acknowledged the vote could be difficult for some senators. But the Senate cleared the bill 45-5, with only two of 27 Republicans and three of 23 Democrats opposed.

The vote delivers transportation funding to the House -- "to an unknown fate," Mr. Wozniak said -- where the Republican majority leader, Mike Turzai of Bradford Woods, has described transportation funding as a priority of the Senate. Steve Miskin, a spokesman for Mr. Turzai, said the House would examine the bill.

"We are going to take a very serious look at the legislation, and we're going to start work right away," he said.

The proposal had been expected to clear the Senate by a wide margin. Asked earlier in the day how he would see it through the House, Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said Senate passage would be a first step.

"They asked to see the Senate take a lead on this. The Senate's complied with that," he said. "Now we've got three-and-a-half weeks to get this done."

David Patti, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council, who has advocated for more transportation funding, said he is optimistic about prospects in the House.

"I think there's stronger support in the House than is sometimes let on," he said. "I would be shocked that we don't have a transportation bill passed this year."

But he said the work to be done by the House in studying the legislation -- as well as the time the Senate has taken examining a House bill to disband the state liquor system -- makes him less certain transportation funding will reach the governor by June 30. The end of the state's fiscal year serves as a deadline for the next annual budget and can become an effective due date for other major initiatives.

On Tuesday, as the Senate prepared to consider amendments to the bill, about 75 people from the Pittsburgh area rallied in the Capitol Rotunda in support of public transportation. Jim Bonner, a Port Authority bus driver, said transit is critical for people who rely on it to get to work.

"We've got a lot of routes right now that are mothballed; we can't run them," he said, carrying a cardboard sign cut to look like the front of a bus.

House Republicans in the past have voiced concerns about including public transit in an infrastructure bill. On the floor Wednesday, Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, said that while he supported the Senate bill, there would be "a whole new ballgame, as far as moving forward," if the House removes provisions for public transit.

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Karen Langley: or 717-787-2141. Kate Giammarise contributed.


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