SPECIAL REPORT: Pennsylvania lawmakers OK transportation funding

| 7/17/2007

Tuesday, July 17, 2007 – Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell is expected to sign a multi-billion dollar state spending plan today that includes money for transportation. A separate effort is nearing passage in the statehouse that could lead to truckers and others paying tolls on Interstate 80 in the state.

The Senate voted 46-2 Monday, July 16, to approve the $27.2 billion budget that doesn’t include higher taxes and fees. Several hours later the House followed suit on a 140-63 vote. The tallies cleared the way for the plan to move to the governor. In a statement issued after the House vote, Rendell said he looked forward to signing it today.

The votes were the culmination of lead negotiators in the statehouse and the governor spending the past week hammering out the final details of the plan as they determined funding levels for various programs. Democrats and Republicans reached a broad agreement July 9 as part of a deal to end a standoff that led to a one-day partial shutdown of state government.

Rendell, a Democrat, was pleased with major increases in funding for various programs. Leaders in the Republican-led Senate touted achievement in blocking higher taxes and fees, as well as slowing the rate of increase in state spending.

The Senate voted 30-19 to approve a separate bill that accounts for about a 20-percent increase in transportation funding during the next decade. It now awaits approval of changes in the House before moving to the governor’s suite.

The bill – HB1590 – earmarks about $950 million annually for roads, bridges and mass transit. The money would come from sources that include boosting tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike by 25 percent in 2009 and increasing the toll rate by 3 percent each year thereafter. It also would allow I-80 to become a toll road.

It also would require municipalities to match 15 percent of state funding for mass transit systems. They could raise the money with taxes on income, sales, hotel rooms or vehicle rentals. On average, localities now are required to chip in 13 percent.

Rendell said the plan represents “by far the most significant amount of money devoted to transportation needs in the history of the commonwealth” and should put roads and transit in good shape for the next 15 to 20 years.

Supporters say tolling along the 313-mile, east-west route of I-80 would be set up to eliminate or minimize fees for local drivers by building collection sites at the state’s borders. However, the bill doesn’t specify how that would work.

Opponents, including the state’s trucking industry, say the plan to toll the interstate likely would be challenged as unconstitutional. They also say it could lead to the diversion of traffic to other roads.

Another plan calls for posting 10 tollbooths along the interstate, the Centre Daily Times reported.

One potential stumbling block for charging vehicles to travel along I-80 is a requirement that the federal government authorize the state to convert the existing road into a “pay-as-you-go” route.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor