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Getting creative to keep Pa.'s highways & bridges safe

AS OUR neighbors in Paulsboro, N.J., are stuck in their homes following a train derailment that has spilled a toxic chemical into the air, we're doubly relieved that the adults in Harrisburg are finally trying to find a way to rescue the Motor License Fund, which pays for all highway and bridge repairs in Pennsylvania. The Paulsboro train derailed last week crossing a failed bridge.

A commission appointed by Gov. Rendell said Pennsylvania was falling behind to the tune of $3.5 billion a year in making repairs to the 40,000 miles of state roads and the 26,000 state-owned bridges.

A second commission appointed by Gov. Corbett agreed with those numbers and recommended increases in license fees and some fuel taxes to raise the money needed.

Corbett agreed with his commission's analysis of the need for more money, but disagreed with its solution. As a follower of Grover Norquist, he has taken the No-Tax Pledge. So, state government has been spinning its wheels on the issue for two years.

Here are the major reasons why the Motor License Fund is in trouble: Fuel taxes are the major source of the fund's revenues and Pennsylvania hasn't raised taxes on gas and diesel since 1997. Motor-license fees have not kept up with inflation. Gasoline consumption is down. At the same time, the cost of road and bridge repairs has risen.

The Transportation Advisory Committee put it this way: "Year after year, there are more infrastructure and services deficiencies than money to address them." There is a concrete reality to the need for regular road and bridge repairs. It's like the roof on your home. If you fail to spend $250 to patch that small hole today, you will have to spend thousands to fix it and more later.

There is a hopeful sign that something will be done to address this problem. It comes from the Republicans in the state Senate. Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, has been meeting quietly with Corbett's people and others in hopes of coming up with a revenue-raising bill early next year.

Rafferty's bill is likely to recommend changes in some fuel taxes and license fees to raise an additional $2.5 billion a year. No one is sure of the details. One item mentioned is to lift a $1.25-a-gallon price cap placed on the state's wholesale-gas tax. Since wholesale prices are close to $3 a gallon, removing the cap would bring in more money without having to raise the tax rate. The state would get a big infusion of cash, while Corbett could claim he lived up to his no-tax-increase pledge.

If that is the gambit that is needed to get Corbett's signature on a bill, then so be it. Of course, wholesalers are likely to pass their increased costs on to the consumers so it will look and feel like a tax increase at the pump.

If that is the case, we should all be adults and realize there is a price to pay for keeping our roads and bridges safe and in good repair - and that price is better than a hazardous chemical spill, or worse.