HARRISBURG - After exhaustive debate over two days, the state House yesterday passed a $700 million transportation funding package in about the time that it takes a red light to turn green.
Without any discussion, the Democratical-controlled House approved the measure, 105-96, mostly along party lines. It now moves to the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans and where it could face a bumpier ride.
The House package falls far short of the $1 billion Gov. Rendell said is needed this coming fiscal year to stave off higher fares at mass-transit agencies such as SEPTA, and to fix crumbling roads and bridges across Pennsylvania.
Nonetheless, the administration applauded the House action, calling it an important first step toward a larger financing package.
"The governor has been consistent in his call for at least $1 billion in transportation funding this year," said spokesman Chuck Ardo. "He remains committed to that level of funding."
After the vote on House Bill 1590, the top state senator called the governor's bottom line too ambitious.
The House package would, for the first time, create a dedicated annual funding source for mass transit and highway repairs by raising money from publicly financed bonds and from tolls on Interstate 80 across the northern part of the state.
Local governments could impose new taxes, including an earned income tax and levies on hotel rooms and car rentals, to pay for an increased local share of the new road and transit funding.
It also would change the makeup of the SEPTA board, giving Philadelphia more power in the operations of the state's largest transit agency.
The plan emerged after Rendell last week announced he would drop his original transportation proposal to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private company and impose a tax on oil company profits to generate $1.7 billion in new transportation funding. Rendell said he could settle for $1 billion, if that amount came in the fiscal year starting July 1.
But under the House bill, only about $450 million would go toward highway projects, with the remaining $250 million for mass-transit agencies.
About $100 million of that would go to SEPTA. Without more funding from Harrisburg, the state's largest mass-transit agency has said it would be forced to increase fares.
State Rep. Dwight Evans, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, called the package "a starting point," and predicted that the funding package would eventually rise to the level Rendell is seeking.
"I look at this as the floor, and we have to go up," said Evans (D., Phila.).
Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R., Jefferson) said he hasn't reviewed all the details of the House bill, but could support the concept of charging tolls on I-80 and other elements in the plan.
But he doubted that a compromise could be reached that would generate $1 billion in new transportation funds.
"I think he is pushing the envelope a little too far," Scarnati said of Rendell.
Although there was no debate yesterday, House members spoke at length about the plan over the previous two days.
Supporters called the bill a long overdue solution to the annual budget quandary of how to increase transportation funding, while opponents described it as a bailout for big cities at the expense of rural areas.
Five Republicans, including Speaker Dennis O'Brien and Reps. George Kenney and John Taylor, all of Philadelphia, and David Steil of Bucks County, voted for the measure.
Freshmen Rep. Mark Longretti of rural Mercer County in the northwest corner of the state, was the lone Democrat to vote against the bill.
Republican members from Philadelphia's suburban counties groused loudly about the increased share of transportation costs that local governments would be forced to foot, and the SEPTA board provision to give the city more say in its operations.
Bucks and Chester Counties each would have two members; Delaware and Montgomery would have three; and Philadelphia would get four members.
Now, the city and each county has two members on the SEPTA board. In addition, the governor and Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate would have one appointee each. The budget and transportation sectaries have non-voting seats.
Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery) said she was angry that her constituents would be paying more for urban transit while losing clout on the SEPTA board.
"I don't mind the fact that the local share is increased," she said. "But we're getting our voice diluted on the new board."
As the House was passing the bill, questions were emerging about the legality of another aspect of the package - charges tolls on I-80.
At issue is a provision that would exempt local drivers from paying the tolls. The bill doesn't specify how that would be accomplished. But a law professor told the Associated Press that such an exemption could violate the interstate commerce protections in the U.S. Constitution by singling out Pennsylvania's drivers for a break.
"The general law is you have to be evenhanded - you cannot be just pursuing protectionism of your state," Duquesne Law School professor Bruce Antkowiak told the AP.
Lawmakers later discounted those concerns, arguing that finer points of the proposal to come would address any constitutional issues.
For Pennsylvania House roll-call votes, go to http://go.philly.com/pahousevote