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Gas tax hike eyed to bail out Pa. budget shortfall

Pennsylvanians should expect to pay more in gas taxes and other fees to cover rising transportation costs, city officials, local planners and employer groups told state legislators Friday.

Pennsylvanians should expect to pay more in gas taxes and other fees to cover rising transportation costs, city officials, local planners and employer groups told state legislators Friday.

But many lawmakers, facing reelection in a recession year, are leery of raising any taxes.

"Every citizen wants everything fixed, but nobody wants to pay for it," said state Rep. Kathy Manderino (D., Montgomery). "We are not going to have a vote [in the legislature] this year unless you get people off the 'I'm afraid to make a tax vote' dime they're on."

Looking for ways to bail the state out of a $472 million transportation-funding hole and a long-term $3.5 billion-a-year shortfall, the House Transportation Committee held the hearing at St. Joseph's University. The committee is conducting similar sessions around the state, as a special session of the legislature struggles to solve the transportation-funding crisis.

City officials, local planners and employer groups urged an increase in the gas tax as the easiest, fastest way out of the jam.

"In the short term, I believe the only way to generate sufficient revenue is through an increase in the gas tax, and I am asking you to play a leadership role in making that happen," said Rina Cutler, Philadelphia deputy mayor for transportation and utilities.

Pennsylvania's current gas tax of 32.3 cents a gallon (including the oil company franchise tax) is 13th-highest in the nation, according to the American Petroleum Institute. The national average is 29.3 cents.

"Raising the gas tax by a nickel would cost the average driver just two dollars per month and raise over $300 million statewide," said Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. "While it may never seem a popular idea to raise taxes or impose additional fees, particularly in the current economic climate, transportation services must be viewed as a utility that everyone uses, everyone benefits from, and everyone must pay for."

Seymour said $1.5 billion in area highway projects and $2.3 billion in transit projects have been postponed by the state's transportation funding crisis.

Pennsylvania faces a $472 million shortage in transportation funding for the year that begins July 1, because the federal government rejected the state's application to make Interstate 80 a toll road and use the proceeds for transportation projects around the state.

Beyond that immediate loss of anticipated income is a chronic shortage of $3.5 million a year for highways and mass transit, a state transportation report said last month.

Gov. Rendell last month called a special session of the legislature to raise enough money to fix crumbling highways and bridges and underfunded mass transit agencies.

SEPTA General Manager Joseph Casey, whose agency cut $110 million from its capital budget because it did not receive anticipated state funding, said European countries levy much higher gas taxes to pay for transportation projects.

"They make it almost a luxury to have an automobile," he said.

Casey told the lawmakers that SEPTA ridership rose when gas prices jumped in 2008 and that he expected a higher gas tax would produce a similar result.

Without the anticipated I-80 toll money from the state, SEPTA has postponed 22 major projects, including its planned new electronic fare system and a makeover of the decrepit City Hall subway station.

"That's really a disaster," Casey said of the 1920s-era station, SEPTA's busiest. "That's what our passengers put up with every day."

Groups as diverse as the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, and the CEO Council for Growth also supported an increase in the gas tax.

State Rep. Richard Geist (R., Blair), the top Republican on the transportation committee, said he thought the House would support a gas tax, but he was less confident about support in the Senate.

Geist, an engineer, said he feared that lack of funding would lead to bridge collapses around the state.

"I'm absolutely terrified that we're going to have a major accident," he said.

Leaders of the Republican-controlled Senate have said they are in no rush to tackle the transportation-funding issue, especially since the state's budget remains to be passed.

The House transportation committee chairman, Joseph Markosek (D., Allegheny), said finding the votes for a $3.5 billion increase in transportation spending is "quite a herculean task, with the economic and political environment we're in now."

Peter Javsicas, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Transportation Solutions, said his pro-transit group had commissioned a poll that showed 64 percent of respondents would be willing to pay $50 more a year to improve transportation.

"Does this send a message to our legislators? I hope so," Javsicas said.

Manderino told officials of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation they should dramatize the potential hazards of insufficient funding by closing bridges and forcing motorists to take long detours.

"I think the drastic measure we need is the orange barrels going up and . . . making citizens miserable," she said.