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Pa. lawmakers' special transportation-deficit session

Faced with a $470 million hole in the state transportation budget, Gov. Rendell will convene a special session of the legislature Tuesday.

Faced with a $470 million hole in the state transportation budget, Gov. Rendell will convene a special session of the legislature Tuesday.

Rendell wants lawmakers to tackle the transportation-funding issue, created by the federal rejection of Pennsylvania's plan to place tolls on I-80 to raise money for highway, bridge, and transit projects around the state. He will address the special session Tuesday afternoon.

Rendell "would like to see that gap filled, at least for the next year and, hopefully, for the longer term," press secretary Gary Tuma said Tuesday.

Rendell called for a special session early this month, after the Federal Highway Administration rejected for the third time the state's application to toll I-80.

That left the state without about $300 million expected for roads and bridges and about $170 million for mass transit agencies, including about $110 million for SEPTA.

That jeopardizes such SEPTA projects as a "smart-card" fare system, a remodeled City Hall subway concourse, and efforts to replace outdated power stations for the commuter rail system, SEPTA officials said.

Statewide, the funding loss would mean repairing 300 fewer miles of roads or fixing 100 fewer bridges a year, state Transportation Secretary Allen Biehler has said.

Rendell said the legislature needed to act by July 1, the start of the next fiscal year. The transportation funding is part of Rendell's proposed $29 billion budget for the next fiscal year, which has passed the Democratic-controlled House but faces opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Without the money that was anticipated from I-80 tolls, state legislators are left with few attractive options for raising the same level of transportation funds.

Rendell has said he would again urge lawmakers to impose a gross-profits tax on oil companies and might again propose leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private operator.

Other possible sources of money could include higher gas taxes, motor vehicle registration fees, and real estate transfer taxes.

State Rep. Rick Geist (R., Blair), the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, has suggested tolling the 50 miles of I-95 in Southeastern Pennsylvania, contracting out maintenance of entire highways or parts of them, shifting the state police budget out of the Motor License Fund, and allowing counties and municipalities to raise taxes for transportation.

A spokesman for House Speaker Keith McCall (D., Carbon) said that the special session would begin Tuesday with Rendell's address and that lawmakers then might juggle special-session deliberations with the regular legislative debates for days or weeks.