By adding less than 8 cents to the cost of a gallon of gasoline, Gov. Rendell and Harrisburg lawmakers can plug the yawning $470 million hole in the state transportation budget - the subject of the legislature's special session beginning Tuesday.
Motorists already accustomed to paying nearly $3 a gallon-plus over the past several years would hardly notice such an increase at the gas pump.
But the upside to raising additional revenue for transportation projects would be manifestly evident to anyone hoping to travel Pennsylvania roads or ride on SEPTA in safety and comfort.
Full funding of the transportation budget will mean that PennDot keeps pace with annual repairs to 300 miles of roads and 100 bridges. For SEPTA as well as other mass transit systems, it means being able to move ahead with capital projects like a "smart-card" fare system and remodeling the City Hall subway concourse. Of all the demands, bridge repairs are the most critical - since neglecting maintenance of the many aging spans risks a deadly collapse.
That's why three years ago, state officials mapped out a wise strategy to pay for these long-term transportation needs. But lawmakers gambled with the enabling legislation, Act 44, since it was funded, in part, with a long-shot proposal requiring federal approval for tolls along Interstate 80.
After Washington's third rejection of the I-80 plan several weeks ago, Rendell rightly acknowledged that it was time to get back to the drawing board on transportation funding.
The governor will spell out the case for action in a speech opening the session. Then, legislators need to get to work on making the tough choices required to meet transportation needs.
It will come as no surprise that few lawmakers have the stomach to hike the gas tax and risk the wrath of voters. They are more likely to seek other ways to raise revenue or trim state spending to meet the needs for a year or two.
That's not a terrible strategy. In a weak economy, shielding consumers from direct price increases might make sense as a short-term fix. And a gross-profits tax on oil companies being proposed by Rendell could do the trick.
This is no time, though, to resurrect the governor's questionable proposal to lease the turnpike. Nor would tolling I-95 be fair to motorists in Southeastern Pennsylvania, already burdened by the turnpike toll hikes to repay transportation bonds.