Can you pay for infrastructure repairs without raising state taxes? In new plan, House GOP says ‘Yes.’ 

By: - November 29, 2019 7:11 am

Without calling for any new taxes, Republicans in the state House have released a plan they say will address billions of dollars in unmet repairs to Pennsylvania’s crumbling highways, bridges, dams and railroads.

Rep. Martina White, the Philadelphia Republican who’s running point on the effort, said the GOP plan is to end diversions of state infrastructure funding, increase competition, and localize new revenues.

But collecting any new money statewide? According to White, “one of the goals of this legislative body is to make sure that increased spending is contained.”

Instead, the House GOP wants to ensure that taxes collected on new cars, or fines paid on a speeding ticket go right back to transportation projects, and aren’t used on unrelated spending. 

By concentrating these dollars on infrastructure, White said, the state can quickly end transfers of highway dollars to the state police, and of Turnpike Commission tolls to a statewide public transit fund. Then, that money can be spent to rebuild roads and bridges.

Besides ending transfers, Republicans also suggested:

  • Fees on electric vehicle owners to capture lost gas tax revenue.
  • Incentivizing counties to set up their own infrastructure banks.
  • Allowing counties and municipalities to hold referendums to increase local taxes for transportation projects.
  • Making construction projects more cost-efficient by studying paving materials, simplifying contracting, encouraging public-private partnerships, consolidating permitting and developing a 100-year infrastructure plan.

“It is extremely easy to sit back…and say that we need to say ‘no’,” Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, said. “That we need to say ‘no’ to increase spending when we need it, to say ‘no’ to any revenue generation when we need it. And say no to planning the future of our commonwealth.”

Pennsylvania has the second highest gas tax in the United States — right after California — at 58.7 cents per gallon as of July 2019, according to the Tax Foundation.

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But those dollars haven’t been keeping up with the demand to replace subway cars, build bus shelters or even fix potholes.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2018 infrastructure report card gave Pennsylvania a C+ grade.

That includes a little more than 4,100 structurally deficient bridges and 36,150 miles of roads in need of repaving. 

Each Pennsylvania driver would have to pay roughly $610 annually to cover there ware and tear alone, according to ASCE. According to a Capital-Star analysis, the average Pennsylvania driver would pay roughy $317 in taxes annually at the current gas tax rate.

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A February 2019 report from the Transportation Advisory Committee, which provides guidance to PennDOT, found $4.3 billion in unfunded road, bridge and highway needs, and $1.2 billion in public transit alone.

Meanwhile, more than $4.25 billion from the state’s Motor Licensing Fund has, over the past six years, instead covered the state police operating costs, according to an audit released earlier this year. 

The transfers are needed to pay for trooper coverage in 1,296 municipalities that don’t have their own police departments — primarily in rural areas.

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Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has attempted, unsuccessfully, to implement a fee on municipalities that use state police coverage instead of paying for their own police departments. But the budget season plan has been steadfastly blocked by local government groups.

These transfers are on the decline but the House GOP is floating putting fine revenues from traffic safety and enforcement, as well as moving violations, to cover the state police’s budget — letting more dollars flow to transportation projects.

State police fines already partially fund infrastructure. Specifically, they go to the state’s public transit trust fund, as well as supporting state and county courts, emergency medical services and Pennsylvania’s general fund, according to State Police spokesperson Ryan Tarkowski.

Right now, “the Pennsylvania State Police does not directly receive funding from traffic citations,” Tarkowski said in an email. “This is important to note because people sometimes believe the department has an incentive to issue more traffic citations as a way to get additional funding. This is not the case.”

 Meanwhile, under Act 44 and Act 89 — two infrastructure funding schemes Harrisburg passed in the past dozen years — $450 million annually in Turnpike toll revenue is transferred to alleviate the operating costs of SEPTA, the Port Authority of Allegheny County, and other state transit agencies.

These transfers have been blamed for rising tolls and debt at the Turnpike Commission, and were the subject of an unsuccessful lawsuit from angry truckers.

But the transfer will fall by $400 million to just $50 million annually in 2022 — to the benefit of the Turnpike, but the loss of public transit agencies. Those dollars will have to be made up the General Assembly, or lead to transit cuts.

White and her fellow Republicans are arguing instead to wind down the transfers sooner, helping the Turnpike manage its $11 billion in debt.

The difference, they say, will be made up by dedicating the state’s motor vehicle sales and use tax to transit funding.

Meanwhile, other consumer groups have pointed out that the Turnpike’s debt comes from highway construction, such as adding lanes — despite no proof that expansion eases congestion.

Interest groups contacted to research the report include PennDOT, SEPTA, the Port Authority of Allegheny County, the ASCE, railroad freight carrier Norfolk Southern, and the Commonwealth Foundation — a free market think-tank — among others.

White’s website also includes a list of suggestions from these groups not adopted for the report, but cataloged for future reference. 

Among the suggestions were creating and tolling high-occupancy vehicle lanes on congested highways, using dollars from gambling or liquor sales, privatizing the Turnpike’s workforce, a mileage fee and a severance tax.

Meanwhile, reports from two regional transit groups, cited within the full House GOP report, suggested other ways to find new transit funding — such as a tax on rideshare trips or congestion pricing.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.