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No tolls on I-80 means transportation trouble for Pa.

HARRISBURG - The loss of hundreds of millions in transportation funding from the failed plan to place tolls on I-80 appears poised to blast a big pothole in the road to a swift budget resolution this year.

HARRISBURG - The loss of hundreds of millions in transportation funding from the failed plan to place tolls on I-80 appears poised to blast a big pothole in the road to a swift budget resolution this year.

Many in Harrisburg, Democrats at least, thought they were on track for smooth and - for the first time during Gov. Rendell's administration - timely budget approval. But now the state has to find another way to replace the $472 million in toll revenue targeted for road and bridge repair and aid to public transit.

"It presents an additional challenge between now and the enactment of a new budget," Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma said Wednesday.

The House approved a $29 billion state budget with no new taxes last month and sent the legislation to the Senate with a gap of between $750 million and $1 billion.

That budget did not contain funding for transportation improvements that were to be underwritten by I-80 tolls.

Now lawmakers have a new hurdle, which Republicans and Democrats agree needs to be solved quickly because of the pressing demands of deteriorating roads and struggling mass-transit systems.

The federal government's rejection Tuesday of the I-80 tolls has resurrected the one word no one wanted to hear in an election year: taxes.

In calling for a special legislative session to deal with transportation, Rendell said Tuesday, "People understand that if they want safe bridges, good roads, and potholes eliminated, you cannot wait for the pothole fairy to do it - you've got to pay for it."

He said he was willing to consider any number of revenue ideas that had been floated: an oil-profits tax, bond financing, new or increased motor-vehicle fees, the leasing of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. But, he said, the problem needs to be solved before the July 1 budget deadline because of the legislature's nearly two-month summer recess and short fall session.

Tolls on I-80 would have helped fund the $532 million a year the state planned for road and bridge repairs and the $414 million a year for public-transit agencies across the state.

Without the revenue, funding for roads and bridges would be cut by about $300 million a year, delaying repairs on 100 bridges and 300 miles of road.

It would also mean $110 million less for SEPTA and tens of millions less in cutbacks for 70 other transit agencies statewide.

Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said not having the toll revenue threatened progress made since the state first dedicated funding for transportation in 1991.

"No question it's a setback," he said.

Evans and his appropriations counterpart in the Senate, Jake Corman, said all funding options needed to be considered. "It's one more problem in the mix," Corman (R., Centre) said. "But doing nothing is not an option."

Rep. Rick Geist (R., Blair), the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, offered his own ideas Wednesday, including adding tolls to the 50 miles of I-95 in Southeastern Pennsylvania, contracting out maintenance of entire highways or parts of them, and allowing counties and municipalities to raise revenue.

"It's time to get on with the business of fully funding Pennsylvania's transportation system," Geist said. "We can no longer afford to stand idly by as our transportation infrastructure deteriorates."

Matthew J. Brouillette, president and chief executive officer of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, said the best way to deal with the financial fallout was not to raise taxes but to "reprioritize" spending.

"We have to ask ourselves: What are the core functions of state government? . . . And direct our money there," he said.

Brouillette suggested repealing prevailing-wage laws on construction projects and cutting off funding for projects that are only tangentially related to transportation, such as bike trails and beautification projects.

Sharon Ward, executive director of the liberal-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, said she hoped lawmakers took a "balanced approach" to solving the crisis.

"Closing tax loopholes and ending special-interest tax breaks for gas and tobacco companies are far better alternatives to deep cuts in education or road and bridge repairs," she said.

A dispute over transportation funding could set Rendell and the legislature on a springtime collision course, as it did last year, resulting in a 101-day budget standoff.

Asked how he believed the situation would play out, Brouillette said: "I think they will be frozen in inaction until they can hold somebody hostage, like SEPTA users. That seems to be the modus operandi. Allow a crisis to erupt and only address it then."

Tuma said the urgency was real.

The state could put off bridge and road repairs, he said, but the loss of transit funding could mean a more immediate impact for commuters, such as service cutbacks.