- Pennsylvania state senators gave their approval yesterday to a major transportation-spending proposal that proponents hope will end a long journey to modernize travel in the state and stem its rising backlog of bridges, highways and mass transit agency facilities in need of repairs.
The Senate's 43-7 vote on the $2.3 billion transportation bill came amid tensions after Republicans employed a rarely used parliamentary maneuver to stop Democrats from trying to strip a provision to reduce wages on some road projects.
Otherwise, the Senate has been a driving and bipartisan force behind an effort to respond to repeated studies that have for years told lawmakers that Pennsylvania's spending on its extensive highway system, aging bridges and deficit-strapped mass transit agencies was woefully inadequate.
The proposal, which is supported by Gov. Corbett, could leave Pennsylvania with among the highest fuel taxes in the nation and motorist fees that rise with inflation.
"Yes, to the citizens of Pennsylvania, we are going to be asking you to dig deeper into your pockets," said Sen. John Wozniak of Cambria County, the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee. "We are not happy about it, but we have the responsibility to govern and to make difficult decisions. It has been almost 15 years since any gasoline taxes in Pennsylvania have been raised. I don't think there is any place in the private sector that has not raised their prices in 15 years."
However, Wozniak also said the greater good is at stake, including tens of thousands of jobs, the safety of people on the roads and Pennsylvania's economic competitiveness.
Approval is expected today in the House, where conservatives objected that it would be the second-largest tax increase in state history. The chamber signaled its support for the measure in a 106-95 preliminary vote Tuesday.
The proposal would raise gasoline taxes and registration, licensing and other motorist fees to spend $2.3 billion a year more on transportation, an increase of about 40 percent in the amount the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation currently spends. A small slice of the money would go to airports, ports, railways and walking and cycling routes.
It would allow up to $60 million per year in capital grants to help mass transit agencies convert fleet vehicles to compressed natural gas or another alternative fuel. Meanwhile, tens of millions of dollars more would go toward transportation-related discretionary accounts controlled by lawmakers and the transportation secretary.
In a reference to that money, Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny, said the bill carries $50 million a year in WAMs - short for "walking-around money," a term for grants that have existed in one form or another for at least a couple of decades and are built around the concept of providing lawmakers with a pot of money to spend as they see fit.
"This bill has WAMs," Ferlo said. "Republicans don't like to admit it. They refer to it as discretionary spending."