Transit bill 'kicks can down the road'
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In a TV ad, several owners of hybrid cars boast about how rarely they need to stop for gas.
While doing a good turn for the environment and their wallets, they are emblematic of a growing problem: By avoiding the gas station, they also avoid paying to maintain the nation's roads and bridges.
Federal and state gasoline taxes finance most road and bridge improvements. Better fuel economy, alternative fuels and a decline in overall driving have choked the flow of that revenue, and experts for years have called for changes in how money is raised for improvements to the transportation system.
A new long-term transportation authorization bill approved by Congress last week does little in that regard, and relies instead on nearly $20 billion from non-transportation sources just to maintain road, bridge and transit spending at current levels for the next 26 months.
The bill, which replaces one that expired in October 2009 and had been extended nine times, has gotten a lukewarm reception in transportation circles. Environmentalists and bicycle and pedestrian advocates hate it, as do those who believe the nation needs to significantly increase its investment in transportation infrastructure.
"This is a step backwards," said James Corless, director of Transportation for America, a broad-based coalition that favors major reforms in transportation spending, in a conference call with reporters last week.
"I would characterize this bill as bumping along for the next two years," said Robert Latham, executive vice president of the Associated Pennsylvania Constructors. "It's kind of another way for Congress to kick the can down the road."
Mr. Latham, who served on Gov. Tom Corbett's advisory commission on transportation funding, said the outcome "underscores the need for the governor and legislative leadership to act on transportation funding ... we're looking at the continued deterioration of the transportation system unless we do something in Harrisburg."
The governor's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission began its work last year with an admonition not to expect significant new federal funding. The new federal legislation, called Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or MAP-21, actually reduces Pennsylvania's allocation by about $100 million in its first year, to $1.6 billion.
The governor's commission recommended lifting a cap on the tax paid by gasoline wholesalers and a variety of fee increases for motorists to generate an additional $2.7 billion per year for transportation, but Mr. Corbett has not embraced any of the proposals.
Congress kept the federal gasoline tax at 18.4 cents per gallon. The levy has not been increased since 1993 and is not indexed to inflation. Because of its dwindling revenue, the federal Highway Trust Fund has needed nearly $35 billion in bailouts in the past four years, and the new legislation contemplates about $20 billion in infusions by the time it expires Oct. 1, 2014.
Critics have accused Congress of using accounting gimmickry, including something called "pension smoothing," to generate some of that. Pension smoothing allows employers to contribute less to pension plans, reducing the tax deductions they can claim -- "a risky and potentially foolish way to increase federal revenue," said Erich Zimmermann, senior policy analyst for Washington, D.C.-based Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Some have credited Congress for at least getting a bill done, giving states clarity about their funding for the first time since the former law expired in 2009.
Dennis Buterbaugh, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, said the department was still analyzing the bill on Friday but said it would at least help the state with its planning. "Two years is a lot better in the transportation planning process than two months," he said.
"Overall, we're happy there was movement," said Gregory Scott, a regional governor of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which issues periodic report cards to call attention to decaying infrastructure.
"We would love to see a longer-term bill but a two-year bill is definitely better than extensions. We don't think it's enough funding," he said.
Transportation proponents are relieved that Congress didn't slash spending, Mr. Scott said. "It's kind of sad. That's the current economic model: You're happy where you are instead of falling behind."
The bill did cut funding to bicycling and pedestrian programs, lumping them under a heading called Transportation Alternatives, for which spending will be reduced from $1 billion to $700 million, according to an analysis by Transportation Issues Daily, an online newsletter.
"It's turning back the clock 20 years on bike and pedestrian safety funding," said Scott Bricker, executive director of Bike Pittsburgh. "It's going to result in less-safe streets and people getting injured and killed out there."
In a statement, Scott Slesinger, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, commended Democrats for withstanding pressure from Republicans to use the bill to mandate the controversial Keystone pipeline project in the Midwest.
But he said the final measure contains "damaging and unnecessary concessions that weaken environmental reviews of highway projects -- reducing public oversight and excluding some from review entirely."
U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown, said technical language in the bill will boost projects that are part of the Appalachian Development Highway System, including a proposed expansion of U.S. Route 219 from the Maryland line to just south of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Several members of the state's congressional delegation had pushed for repeal of a 2005 provision preventing Pennsylvania from using toll credits to match federal funding allocated to ADHS projects. The credits are earned when the state invests money in capital improvements to the Pennsylvania Turnpike and its Northeast Extension.
"I'm thrilled that this legislation will finally allow us to move forward on upgrading U.S. 219 to a four lane highway between Somerset and I-68 in Maryland," Mr. Critz said. "This project has been a top priority of mine and a top priority of our other local elected officials, and the people of Somerset and Cambria counties have waited far too long for this project to come to fruition."
First Published July 2, 2012 12:00 am