What do higher gasoline taxes pay for?
In Washington, the question has taken on increased urgency as Congress looks for ways to keep the federal Highway Trust Fund from running out of money in 80 days.
And in Southeastern Pennsylvania, answers are already coming in, as transportation planners add $11 billion for highway, bridge, and transit projects that will be paid for largely by higher state gas taxes.
Sens. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) and Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) have proposed raising the federal gasoline tax by 12 cents a gallon over two years and linking it to inflation. The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents a gallon and has not been raised since 1993.
A 12-cent federal increase would raise an estimated $164 billion over the next decade, keeping the trust fund solvent to pay for highways, bridges, and transit.
The proposal faces stiff opposition, especially from House Republicans, and Congress is expected to vote this week on a short-term funding fix that won't raise gas taxes.
In states such as Pennsylvania, though, motorists are already getting a real-life lesson in the calculus of taxes and transportation.
In November, the Pennsylvania legislature narrowly approved and Gov. Corbett signed an increase in state transportation funding that would provide about $2.3 billion more annually by 2018.
Most of the money (about 82 percent) will come from an increase in the state's gas tax.
Now, the Philadelphia region's residents are getting a detailed look at what they can expect for their money.
And they have until Friday to weigh in on how the money should be spent over the next 26 years.
A detailed update by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission to its long-range plan specifies how Southeastern Pennsylvania will use $11 billion more in funding than was expected last year - a 33 percent increase.
On July 24, the DVRPC board is to vote on adding the new projects to the Philadelphia region's long-range plan through 2040.
Scores of new or accelerated projects, from I-95 upgrades to a SEPTA rail extension to King of Prussia, are slated for Southeastern Pennsylvania.
South Jersey, though, is scheduled to get no more projects over the next 26 years than were slated last year, because New Jersey did not increase funding for transportation.
The trade-off is that Pennsylvania motorists are likely to see their state gas tax rise about 28 cents a gallon, from last year's 31.2 cents a gallon to 59.2 cents by 2018. It is now the nation's fifth-highest, behind California, New York, Connecticut, and Hawaii.
A typical Pennsylvania driver can expect to pay $22 more a year this year and $132 more by 2018, according to calculations made by Corbett's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission.
That will amount to a 42-cent-a-week increase this year, and $2.54 a week by 2018.
(The commission assumed that the typical driver owned one vehicle, drove it 12,000 miles a year, and got 24 miles per gallon.)
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In New Jersey, the state gas tax is the nation's second-lowest (behind only Alaska), at 14.5 cents a gallon. Gov. Christie has opposed any effort to increase the tax, although the state's Transportation Trust Fund is $14.4 billion in debt and all incoming tax money goes to pay off existing debt.
The five counties of Southeastern Pennsylvania are slated to get $44.2 billion in transportation funding through 2040, while the four counties of South Jersey are to get $19.4 billion, the DRVPC projected.
Some of the work is already underway, as 26 newly funded highway and bridge projects are to begin this year in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
For example, the new money permitted crews on Wednesday to start a $1.7 million project to resurface four miles of U.S. 30 in Tredyffrin and Easttown Townships.
And on Monday, PennDot will start a $3.4 million project to repave battered sections of I-95, beginning with a section between the Girard Point Bridge in Philadelphia and Route 420 in Delaware County.
Among the biggest advances for the region is SEPTA's newfound ability to buy new locomotives and new Silverliner VI Regional Rail cars, to replace its trolley fleet, and to rehabilitate its Broad Street Subway fleet.
SEPTA also is planning to expand rail service after decades of cutbacks, by extending the Elwyn line to Wawa in Delaware County and by extending the Norristown High-Speed Line to King of Prussia in Montgomery County.
Both projects have been in the planning stages for years; the infusion of new money may make them both realities in the next decade.
"That is huge," said Michael Boyer, manager of long-range planning and economic coordination for the DVRPC. "Last year, they weren't able to do any of that."
On the highway side, $3 billion is being added for bridge repairs, and $1.5 billion in road projects is being added or accelerated.
The updated plan now includes money to nearly complete "The Circuit," a 750-mile network of bicycle and pedestrian paths.
Public comments may be made on the updated long-range plan until Friday.
The amended plan is available at: www.dvrpc.org/reports/14049A.pdf
Comments and questions should be addressed to:
Plan/TIP/Conformity Comments, DVRPC Public Affairs Office, 190 N. Independence Mall W., 8th Floor, Philadelphia 19106.