Political delays shameful in long-delayed transportation funding law

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The Port Authority of Allegheny County’s ship — er, bus — has come in at last.

After a near-endless series of political traffic jams, Pennsylvania finally has a long-term transportation funding law to provide a stable source of revenue for public transit. The law also makes significant headway against the state’s $3 billion to $4 billion annual under-investment in roads, bridges, and other parts of the transportation network.

The new law, signed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett on Nov. 23, is set to provide $2.3 billion annually in new revenue within five years. Money primarily comes from removing a cap on the Oil Company Franchise Tax. Fuel distributors currently pay the tax on only the first $1.25 of a gallon of gasoline, but the law will gradually increase the tax to cover the full price of gas by 2018. Fees for registering vehicles and obtaining driver’s licenses will also increase over time based on inflation. For consumers, the overall changes mean that the new law will cost an average Pennsylvania motorist about $3 per week by the fifth year.

This law is absolutely, unquestionably vital. Barry Schoch, Pennsylvania’s secretary of transportation, has repeatedly called public attention to the state's dilapidated bridges. The Port Authority’s perennial financial troubles and service cuts are all too familiar to Pittsburgh-area bus riders. Big-budget CEOs, civic leaders, disabled citizens, downtown office workers, college students — all have jumped on board with the same message: pass transportation funding.

But despite being such a moderate proposal in such a critically needed area, the new measure’s legislative progress was more convoluted and delayed than a 28X in rush hour.

Corbett began action in April 2011 when he assembled the Transportation Funding Advisory Commission. This group was tasked with recommending long-term, stable solutions for funding the state’s roads, bridges, and public transit networks. The commission returned from its job in August to propose essentially the same fundraising mechanisms that became law last month. The plan almost immediately gained broad popular support. With the same party controlling the governor’s seat and both houses of the state legislature, and the plan crafted by the governor’s own hand-picked panel, the proposal should have had an easy political ride.

So how did a vital, well-studied, and well-liked piece of legislation take almost two and a half years to enact? It’s the same answer as to why the 61 and 71 buses always clump together on Fifth Avenue: for no good reason at all.

Corbett rewarded his commission’s work first by totally ignoring it for seven months, second by saying he would take the results into consideration in his next draft budget, third by neglecting to do even that, and fourth by maintaining a further 12-month silence before finally unveiling his own plan.

The governor’s proposal — shockingly, to gradually uncap the franchise gas tax — wasn’t actually announced until February 2013, a year and a half after the advisory group suggested it. The state legislature wasted the rest of this year disagreeing on funding levels, tangling up transportation with other political issues, and ignoring persistent calls from outside Harrisburg to quickly pass some kind of legislation.

And then there was last month’s final spasm of political fighting.

House Republicans demanded that the bill include an increase to the prevailing wage threshold: the minimum size of a public construction project that requires union-scale wages. The previous threshold of $25,000 hadn’t been adjusted since 1961. The Republicans’ new figure of $100,000 is still a bargain over the inflation-equivalent amount of $195,273, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nonetheless, that small concession was enough to push some House Democrats into voting no on the bill, including 10 from Allegheny County.

Given the Port Authority’s history of hand-to-mouth funding and regular service cuts — not to mention Pittsburgh’s extraordinary number of crumbling bridges — those votes amount to pointless political posturing. The local impact of failing this must-pass legislation would have been appalling. The local feedback from explaining a failure to thousands of stranded bus riders would have been incredible.

The Republicans weren't any more helpful in trotting out the old anti-tax line. Corbett presumably had to clear his conscience on raising urgently needed revenue in the face of signing the infamous Grover Norquist pledge to avoid tax increases. Even two weeks ago, State Representative Daryl Metcalfe of Cranberry opined that the bill would “take the taxpayer to the cleaners.”

Such anti-tax rhetoric ignores real-life fact. Pennsylvania’s gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1997; if the prevailing wage threshold goes up for inflation, then so should the gas tax. Additionally, expansion of the wholesale fuel tax would at most add 9.5 cents to the price of a gallon of gas in 2014 and an eventual 27.2 cents by 2018, according to analyses by the [ITAL]Pittsburgh Post-Gazette[ITAL]. With gas prices currently around $3.30, a projected 8 percent increase over five years is likely to barely keep pace with inflation. If that’s “the cleaners,” then a lot of people must be wondering where Metcalfe launders his shirts.

But the worst line comes from Representative Brad Roae, of Crawford County south of Erie. Like some other rural Republicans, his problem with the transportation law is that it helps fund the buses in urban Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. “I have a lot of dirt roads in my district. I live on a dirt road,” he said after the House originally defeated the bill. “It’s not right that people who live out in the country have to pay a higher gasoline tax to subsidize mass transit.”

Perhaps, in that case, Roae would be fine with nearly 2 million Pittsburghers and Philadelphians keeping their large contributions to the state income and sales tax to themselves in return. Schoch ably refuted Roae’s way of thinking in June when he pointed out that the state’s transportation networks are integrated into a single interconnected system, all of which — dirt roads included — is heavily subsidized. Certainly the highways and byways running through Crawford County weren’t constructed and maintained solely from the fuel tax revenue of its 89,000 residents.

The reality of the new transportation law also defies Roae’s accusation. The funding measure does indeed cover public transit to the tune of around $480 million in the fifth year, but the largest portion, of $1.3 billion, goes to state roads and bridges. Of interest to a rural constituent, the law also provides $237 million for road maintenance by local governments, $86 million for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and, yes, even $30 million for repairing dirt and gravel roads.

Pennsylvania’s new transportation funding law is a winner, and it is an enormous shame that it took so long to pass. Citizens statewide can drive and ride easier knowing that our infrastructure will be a little less crumbly in the future and that our buses might not take quite so long to arrive — all at a minimal price increase. Whatever trip the governor and legislature have been on, they sent themselves on a wasteful 27-month detour of their own making. Near-constant roadside shouts from the rest of us wasn’t enough to show our state leaders the way. Next time we’d better send them with a GPS.