Lawmakers: Don’t expect a fast transit funding fix

Though state House Appropriations Committee chairman Dwight Evans (D-Phila.) is trying mightily to get a transportation funding bill through the legislature before the fall election, don’t expect much to happen before a new governor is inaugurated next year.

That was the general sense that came out of the PenTrans legislative breakfast in Harrisburg Wednesday morning.

Republican Jacob Corman (R-Centre), Evans’ counterpart in the Senate, reaffirmed his party’s stance that the Senate won’t come back in a lame-duck session to pass legislation. Doing that “would be unfair,” Corman argued before the transportation advocacy group, because it would enact major legislation and raise fees without giving the newly elected governor and Legislature a chance to weigh in on the issue.

Corman also leveled some criticism at Evans’ bill, calling it a “Band-Aid” that won’t fully meet the state’s infrastructure needs. Evans’ bill, along with already scheduled funding from Act 44, would bring in about $1.75 billion annually through the taxing of oil company profits, the levying of an oil company transfer tax and an increase in motor vehicle fees. (It has also attracted the ire of transit unions because it would require they give 72 hours notice before going on strike.)

In contrast, the state needs about $3.5 billion annually to meet its transportation needs.

Corman said the Senate Republican caucus is interested in filling that gap, but the lawmakers want to pass one set of legislation early in the next governor’s term that will close the entire gap. (Evans defended the measure by saying it was the only amount that could reasonably pass the General Assembly.)

Corman also expressed support for tax and fee hikes, saying that the need for infrastructure spending transcended partisan differences. At the same time, Corman said that lawmakers need to be able to secure funding promises for local projects in order to vote for the tax and fee hikes that will fund them ― something they can’t do with an outgoing administration.

The Rendell administration “can’t fulfill those promises,” he said, adding that lawmakers would “engage with the next administration” to secure more funding. Still, Evans didn’t seem too enthusiastic about the prospects of that happening. He called both Republican Tom Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato dishonest about their approaches to the problem because they’ve said they could solve the funding gap without raising taxes.

“You’re not going to do it just on [raising] fees,” he said, adding that the two “are doing a disservice to this state” with their anti-tax pledges. Yet the lawmakers in attendance were also aware that the longer the Legislature takes to solve this problem, the more difficult it becomes ― both because the state’s needs continue to grow and because time must be spent solving other fiscal issues. As Corman put it, “there’s a day of reckoning coming in Pennsylvania,” as lawmakers will also have to deal next term with ballooning pension costs and the end of federal stimulus programs that have been propping up the state budget.

And if the Legislature waits until after a new governor takes office, it would throw off infrastructure projects for 2011 because funding wouldn’t come in time for the year’s building season.

Both Corman and Evans, as well as Toby Fauver, a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation deputy secretary, also held out hope for federal money to help solve the problem.

Corman called a federal transportation policy “a significant missing component.” He wants the federal government to give the state more authority to tax federal roads in the state ― something that he thinks will be key going forward.

Evans is holding out hope that federal money from the six-year transportation bill President Obama is pushing would also fill some of the gap.

Rina Cutler, Philadelphia’s deputy mayor of transportation and utilities, also used a question-and-answer portion to lobby the crowd,  composed mostly of transit advocates and representatives from engineering firms. She told them that “you all better start making some noise” because political pressure was necessary for the Legislature to act.

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