State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), chairman of the Pennsylvania House Appropriations Committee, has said he will hold up passage of a state budget if a permanent funding solution for mass transit is not approved. This week on Philly.com, he took questions about SEPTA and other mass-transit issues from readers. Below are portions of that exchange, which can be found at
Question: Can the money from changing I-80 to a toll road be used for public transit? The [Pennsylvania] constitution is a mess in requiring that revenue from vehicles must be used for roads. . . .
Answer: Yes, the money generated from tolling I-80 can be used as part of the solution for transit. The Pennsylvania constitution only limits revenue generated from the Liquid Fuels Tax (i.e. the gas tax) to be used for road and bridge maintenance. I would agree with you that the constitution needs to be changed in that regard. That's why I have proposed that we form a 15-member constitutional commission to look at issues such as the one you've raised. . . .
Q: I was a longtime rider of SEPTA before leaving for a job in the suburbs, where I need a car. Why not put a toll on the expressway or I-95, which are the primary roads competing for the time and attention of commuters? You'd get riders to take public transit more to avoid the toll, and free up those roads for traffic instead of having to keep widening them.
A: Tolling additional highways is a central part of this debate. In and of itself, it's not a bad idea. The difficulty is that federal approval is required to toll interstate roads and the process can be long and cumbersome. We need a more immediate solution . . . . Having said that, I can tell you that several proposals do call for turning I-80 into a toll road. The difference with I-80 (as opposed to I-95 or the Schuylkill Expressway) is that I-80 already is poised for federal approval, so the process probably can be negotiated fairly quickly. Also, the majority of drivers who use the road . . . are traveling through Pennsylvania, not using it as a local road. (For those who do use it as a local road, there are discussions to create exemptions from any tolls.)
Q: Recent articles have suggested that the state is contributing its fair share of capital to SEPTA, but is still responsible for the cash shortfall by not allowing the local governments to explore ways to raise capital on their own. Is this the problem in your view, and if so what is being done to resolve this issue?
A: You are correct. One of the complaints the legislature has repeatedly heard is that counties need to contribute a greater share to their local transit agencies. In fact, nationally the local share is generally 80 percent to transit while the state portion is 20 percent. In Pennsylvania, it's the opposite. So in order to boost the local share, we have to give counties the ability to raise revenue. . . .