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Clock running out on highway funding

Pa. has lagged in upkeep of its roads, bridges and mass transit systems.

Corbett

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett, who made a campaign pledge to oppose any increase in state fees or taxes, has had a month to digest the unsurprising conclusion from a hand-picked commission that taxes and fees must go up to address the deplorable condition of Pennsylvania’s roads, bridges and mass transit systems.

Corbett, a Republican, has not tipped his hand as to which of those recommendations, if any, he’ll support, even though there is broad support for them in the business community, perhaps Corbett’s biggest ally.

Time is ticking down if the Legislature is to take up the matter before 2013. Legislators will be wary of voting to raise taxes in 2012, an election year, and they like governors to lead on sensitive issues by building support around the state — a campaign that can take months.

For years now, Pennsylvania has lagged in its commitment to the upkeep of its roads, bridges and mass transit systems, and a multibillion-dollar backlog of repairs has resulted, transportation advocates say. On Aug. 23, Corbett’s transportation secretary, Barry Schoch, had just finished briefing a group of business-sector advocates on the number of state-maintained bridges in need of repair when the East Coast earthquake rattled the room.

“We just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘What was that number again?’” said David Patti, president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Business Council.

The number is 5,200 — most in the nation, or about one in five of all state-maintained bridges, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Of the approximately 40,000 state-maintained highway miles, one in five was in need of repairs as of a year ago.

“We literally have a safety issue, when you look at the condition of roads and bridges,” said Gene Barr, vice president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

Beyond safety, business advocates say the state’s competitiveness is hurt by employee hours lost on congested roads, delivery trucks detoured around weight-restricted bridges and inadequate public transportation systems that many people use to get to work.

“Our preference would be to prioritize and to find savings, and all those things still will be necessary, but ... more money has to go in,” said David N. Taylor, executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association. “And I think the point is well made that there are costs that are already associated with not fixing or upgrading our infrastructure.”

This year, PennDOT is scheduled to spend $5.2 billion on highways, bridges and transit, including federal money.

The cornerstone of the commission’s recommendations was the removal of a cap on the oil company franchise tax, a wholesale tax paid by gas stations. At the end of a five-year phase-in period, that alone would provide almost $1.4 billion, the commission said. Assuming gas stations pass the entire cost through to customers and gas prices stay the same, then that would add approximately 19 cents to a gallon of gas after five years.

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