GOP signals changes to transportation funding
HARRISBURG — Conservative state lawmakers who are wary about plans to raise taxes or fees to boost transportation spending raised the prospect Wednesday that they will insist first on major changes, such as abolishing the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, to make public money go further.
The House Republican majority will be under pressure in the 10 weeks before the Legislature departs Harrisburg for the summer to make the case against a massive transportation funding plan.
Supporting such plans are leading senators from both political parties, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and a slew of groups from the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry to the AARP.
Even one member of the House Republican leadership acknowledged that there is tremendous pressure on the issue.
“I don’t think we thought there was going to be this much momentum for transportation,” said Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, the caucus secretary.
Many House Republicans said they acknowledge a need for more money to flush into the state’s transportation systems, and Democrats are on board with such efforts.
But raising taxes and fees on things like fuel, licenses and registration will be a hard sell for conservatives.
“I have a lot of concerns and a lot of skepticism about raising taxes on Pennsylvania’s citizens during the difficult economic time that we’ve been in,” said Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland.
Rather, lawmakers should focus first on making public money work more efficiently, he and other House Republicans said.
Ideas they raised include shifting the operations of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to the state Department of Transportation, lifting prevailing wage requirements for municipal road projects and demanding more cost savings from mass transit agencies.
Sen. John Wozniak, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Transportation Committee, shot back that lawmakers who are afraid of a vote to increase motorist taxes and fees will roll out a long list of demands that must be satisfied first.
“And if they don’t get that long list, they’ll take their ball and go home,” Wozniak said. “To not do anything is the foolish thing to do.”
Wozniak and other Democratic lawmakers, as well as Senate Republicans, have pressured Corbett to take the lead on advocating for more transportation funding since he took office in 2011 as a way to boost the economy, improve residents’ quality of life and deal with public safety concerns fueled by deteriorating highways and bridges.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, on Tuesday unveiled a $2.5 billion plan that is more ambitious and expensive than the $1.8 billion proposal that Corbett floated in January.
PennDOT is spending $5.3 billion this year on highways, bridges and transit.
Rafferty’s plan would cost the average motorist an estimated $2.50 a week, while the transportation dollars would trickle down to quarry owners, engineering firms and makers of signs, concrete, rail and rebar.
Wozniak said he could make the case that keeping the turnpike commission has financial advantages and pointed out that the Corbett administration is already taking steps to save money on the operations of the turnpike and mass transit agencies.
But he warned that Democrats will fight any effort to undermine the boost to workers’ pay that prevailing wage laws provide.
House Transportation Committee chairman Dick Hess, R-Bedford, has not endorsed either plan. But on Wednesday he encouraged bipartisan cooperation on the best plan possible, one that addresses all modes of transportation. He also raised the urgency of the matter, saying it must be completed before the summer road and bridge construction season begins in earnest.
House Republicans said eliminating the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission in the wake of corruption charges against five ex-employees there could save upward of $300 million a year in administrative costs. Its operating budget for the fiscal year is $327 million.