State transportation bill gets final passage
November 22, 2013 10:45 AM

HARRISBURG — Billions in new taxes and spending for roads, bridges and mass transit in Pennsylvania comfortably cleared a final legislative hurdle Thursday with a bipartisan vote to send a long-stalled bill to the governor.

The state House voted 113-85 to tax gasoline and raise motorist fees to ramp up over five years to at least $2.3 billion in annual additional funding.

Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, supported the measure and said the legislation will ensure about $500 million for more than 150 transportation projects over the next decade in Indiana County, including repairs on Indiana County’s 140 structurally deficient bridges.

And, Reed added, the legislation is projected to create 50,000 jobs and save 12,000 jobs that are in jeopardy through continued inaction.

Gov. Tom Corbett said in brief remarks at an appearance with a few dozen legislators after passage that he perceived an urgent need to address transportation infrastructure after taking office three years ago.

He said passage of the vote showed leadership and mentioned concerns about public safety several times.

“The longer we wait, the longer we put all of them at risk,” Corbett said.

During floor debate Thursday, supporters spoke of a dramatic need for road and bridge projects and to help out the financially stressed mass transit systems that undergird regional economies.

“Everybody wants good roads and bridges and infrastructure, but nobody wants to pay for it,” said Rep. Mike McGeehan, of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee. “Unfortunately, that’s not a reality. If we want to remain a first-class economic power it can’t be done with a third-rate transportation system.”

“We often hear people saying that Pennsylvania’s roads are much worse than neighboring states,” Rep. Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, said in a prepared statement after the vote. “That’s because we spend far less than those states to maintain them. I believe it’s critical that we invest in our transportation network and maintain these roads in order to ensure the safety of motorists and the overall economic competitiveness of our state.”

Smith also voted for the transportation funding bill, as did Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, Indiana County’s third representative in the House.

Reed said that in addition to providing more dollars for state road and bridge projects, the legislation will increase the amount of money allocated to municipalities through the liquid fuels fund for local road and bridge repairs.

Smith and Reed said the legislation will provide funding for more than 234 projects in Indiana and Jefferson counties. Some of the major projects in Indiana County include:

• Extension of Rose Street from Oakland Avenue to Philadelphia Street.

• Improvements in sight distances along Route 422 in Armstrong Township.

• Reconstruction of Route 56 near United High School to create a gradual descent and eliminate sharp curves.

• Realignment and relocation of Route 119 at Covode, North Mahoning Township.

• Realignment of Route 119 near Grove Chapel, Rayne Township.

• Realignment of Route 119 and replacement of bridges over Crooked Creek near Home, Rayne Township.

Some construction work made possible by the new legislation could start as early as next spring, Reed said.

Opponents warned the new taxes will be a crushing burden to residents and argued for cheaper alternatives.

“Every single item on the shelf has a potential to go up because of the increase in transporting these goods,” said Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren. “I am dismayed at this legislation.”

House passage came just three days after the chamber narrowly defeated the same proposal. Unusual for the House, substantial numbers of both parties voted for and against the measure.

Rep. Donna Oberlander, R-Clarion, said improved roads and bridges are critical to the economy in her rural district.

“Is this bill perfect? No, there isn’t a perfect bill,” Oberlander said. “But it does represent solutions for a diverse commonwealth.”

The first major transportation bill in six years increases a tax on gasoline at the wholesale level, which could boost prices at the pump by a quarter or more by the time it is fully implemented in five years.

It also imposes a range of higher fees and fines collected by the state Department of Transportation, and would link future increases to the rate of inflation.

Reed said it’s projected the legislation will cost the average motorist $1.35 more per week by next year, and about $2.50 more per week when fully implemented in five years.

Corbett vowed not to raise taxes, including motorist fees, during his campaign for the governorship, but during the Capitol news conference said simply that he did not agree that the transportation bill broke those promises.

He said there was no way to predict how much of the increase would be passed along to consumers.

“Will they pass some of that along? Yes,” he said.

Another provision changes “prevailing wage” rules for public works projects, saving local governments millions of dollars a year by waiving minimum pay requirements for projects worth less than $100,000. The current limit is $25,000.

It will allow the PennDOT secretary to increase from 65 mph to 70 mph the speed limit on certain highways, and direct a portion of the money to airports, ports, railways and walking and cycling routes.

The bill also contains tens of millions of dollars for discretionary accounts that lawmakers and the Corbett administration can direct.

Corbett’s office said he will sign the bill next week.

Staff writer Randy Wells contributed to this report.

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