HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell on Tuesday urged a special session of the legislature to raise enough money to fix the state's crumbling highways and bridges and underfunded mass transit agencies.
Rendell said lawmakers needed to find at least $472 million a year to replace anticipated funds blocked by a federal rejection of a state plan to place tolls on I-80.
And he urged the assembled House and Senate members to be much more ambitious and raise about $3.5 billion a year to pay for broader transportation needs.
Faced with a growing deficit in the state's general budget, many legislators were skeptical that sweeping new taxes or fees for transportation could win approval in this election year.
Rendell said an increase in the state's gas tax was "one of the most obvious options" for the legislature to consider. He also suggested increasing the oil company franchise tax, which would mean a higher bill for motorists at the gas pump, too.
Pennsylvania's gas tax of 32.3 cents a gallon (including the franchise tax) is 13th-highest in the nation. The national average is 29.3 cents.
Other possibilities include increases in motor-vehicle related fees for cars and trucks, adding the state sales tax to gasoline, and increases in real estate transfer taxes.
Some lawmakers want to seek federal authority to place tolls on I-95 and I-80 just to pay for repairs to those roads.
And Rendell told reporters Tuesday that he was still interested in leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a company as a way to raise money.
Rendell said he would sign any measure approved by the special session that at least filled the $472-million-a-year hole in transportation funds.
He said the legislature could make that short-term fix by raising about $1 billion over the next two years, by borrowing or by increasing fees or taxes.
But he urged the legislature to go further and raise $3.5 billion a year to reduce a backlog of 5,600 structurally deficient bridges and 7,000 miles of roads in poor condition, and to allow transit agencies such as SEPTA to buy buses, install automated fare-collection systems, upgrade run-down passenger stations, and replace old power substations.
"This approach will require courage, but in my mind, it's the only solution that will have a lasting legacy for generations to come," Rendell said.
Rep. Joe Markosek (D., Allegheny), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said the special session faced a "herculean task."
"It may be that there's no interest in doing any of this," Markosek said. "Our job is to lead, but we may look back and see that nobody is following us. I hope that's not the case."
Rep. Richard Geist (R., Blair), an engineer and the ranking Republican on the committee, said, "The need is so great. There was nothing he [Rendell] said that was inaccurate."
SEPTA Chairman Pasquale "Pat" Deon, who came to the capital to support Rendell's call for action, said he expected the most resistance from Republicans who control the Senate. Deon, a Bucks County Republican, said he would lobby GOP members for funding help.
"No one has the appetite to raise taxes," Deon said. He said he hoped the lawmakers would at least agree to a short-term fix, to "kick the can down the road for the next governor."
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) said the Senate's first priority will be passing a state budget by July 1. If time permits, the Senate will tackle transportation funding as well, he said.
Pileggi said the state should not give up on putting tolls on interstates.
The special session of the legislature will meet sporadically, between regular sessions, to try to deal with the transportation issues.
Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, will insist that any funding measure apply to mass transit as well as roads and bridges, said aide Johnna Pro.
Rendell called the special legislative session, the state's 40th, after the Federal Highway Administration rejected the state's application to toll I-80 to raise about $472 million a year for highways, bridges, and mass transit.
On Monday, a state Transportation Advisory Committee issued an examination of the state's needs: About 22 percent of the state's 25,000 bridges are structurally deficient.
The report said additional funding of $3.5 billion, including local funding, would allow the state to rebuild 500 bridges a year for the next 10 years. It would also permit transit systems to add bus routes and commuter rail service, and limit fare hikes.