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Moment of truth for transportation funding

HARRISBURG - The coming week could determine the fate of billions of dollars in new funding for roads, bridges, and mass transit in Pennsylvania.

HARRISBURG - The coming week could determine the fate of billions of dollars in new funding for roads, bridges, and mass transit in Pennsylvania.

Republicans who control the House of Representatives have been working behind the scenes with Democratic colleagues and the Corbett administration to negotiate a transportation funding plan with enough support to finally pass the chamber.

GOP House officials said they expected to reach an agreement in days, and bring it up for a full floor vote the week of Oct. 21.

If they can't, the odds of reviving the bill this year or next are slim - and "the transportation issue is probably over," said Dave Thomas, legal counsel to House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson).

The issue, one of Gov. Corbett's top policy priorities, particularly as he eyes a reelection campaign, has been stuck for months in a legislative logjam. The House and the GOP-controlled Senate have been unable to agree on how to raise the money - or how much to spend.

In June, the Senate passed a $2.5 billion plan that would increase driver's license and vehicle-registration fees, and put a hefty surcharge on speeders and others who violate traffic laws.

It also proposed lifting the cap on a tax imposed on gas stations, and reducing the per-gallon flat tax at the pump by 2 cents.

But a number of House members, including many conservative Republicans, balked at the price tag and specifically questioned the amount of money dedicated for mass transit in big cities, including Philadelphia.

They also worried about a backlash over raising fees on motorists, a move likely to be branded by political opponents as a tax increase.

Legislators left for their summer break without resolving their differences.

Without the funds, bridges in disrepair are likely to be weight-restricted, mass-transit systems, such as SEPTA, will have to scale back projects, and shoddy roads will mean more traffic headaches for motorists.

Smith is leading the negotiations with the Corbett administration, and insisting that any agreement include changes to the state's prevailing wage laws for transportation projects.

Those laws require contractors on state-funded construction projects costing more than $25,000 to pay specific wages for various jobs. The wages are set by the state Department of Labor and Industry and are generally tied to those in the area's organized labor contracts.

House Republicans have long argued that prevailing wage laws drive up the cost of construction projects, and that the wages set do not always reflect local wages, particularly in rural communities.

Among the proposed changes under debate is one to raise the $25,000 threshold for projects to require prevailing wages, a standard set more than 50 years ago. Another change: exempting routine maintenance projects, such as minor resurfacing projects and curb repairs, from prevailing wage.

In all, the plan taking shape behind closed doors would spend $2 billion to $2.5 billion, including more than $400 million for mass transit.

"We are enthusiastic that all the parties with a stake in this are involved," said state Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch, juxtaposing the talks on transportation with the gridlock over the federal shutdown.

House Democrats, whose support is considered critical to passing any transportation plan in the chamber, have not taken a formal position. And powerful labor unions are still deciding whether they can support a plan that contains prevailing wage changes.

Then there is the Senate, which would also have to approve the negotiated proposal.

In an interview last week, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Rafferty (R., Montgomery) said he's had "no discussions" with the House, and has only received updates from Schoch on the status of talks.

Rafferty said he is open-minded, yet noted that he would only consider a "substantive proposal" from the House.

"I'm hopeful," he said, "that we all remember that this is a core function of government . . . looking out for the health, welfare, and safety of our citizens. There is no hiding from that. It's our responsibility."

Local Highway Projects In Limbo

The following are regional highway projects that could be funded if Pennsylvania legislators agree on a transportation spending plan:

U.S. Route 422 Bridge Improvements: Rebuild and widen the bridges over the Schuylkill at Indian Lane and the Schuylkill River Trail in West Norriton and Upper Merion Townships, Montgomery County. The $133.4 million project would also widen the roadway in the project area, replace the Route 23 bridge over U.S. 422, and construct a new ramp from eastbound U.S. 422 to Route 23.

U.S. Route 1: Reconstruct and widen three roadway miles, rehabilitate 11 bridges, and improve four retaining walls along U.S. 1 from Old Lincoln Highway to Route 413 in Bucks County for $216 million.

U.S. Route 322: Reconstruct and widen the roadway, adding two lanes along eight miles of U.S. 322 from U.S. 1 to I-95 in Delaware County for $224 million.

I-676: Replace seven bridges over I-676 in the city of Philadelphia for $110 million.

SOURCE: Pennsylvania Department of Transportation website