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Republicans in Cars

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I did a double take the other day when I read that Gov. Corbett's Transportation Advisory Committee was due to issue its report on August 1.

I said to myself: I thought we already had a Transportation Advisory Committee and that it had released its report.  Sure enough, I went on the PennDOT web site and found a whole page devoted to TAC, complete with voluminous .pdf reports.

Turns out I was wrong.  The governor doesn't have a Transportation Advisory Committee; he has a Transportation Funding Advisory Committee.

This is a 36-member group tasked with coming up with ways to raise money for the Motor License Fund, something not many people know about. The Motor License Fund, which totals $3.5 billion a year, funds PennDOT operations and the State Police. It is where we get our money for repair and reconstruction of the state-owned roads and bridges.  And, my oh my, they are a lot of them: 40,000 miles of state roads and 26,000 or so state bridges.

Stop me if you've heard this before, but the Motor License Fund has a problem. It doesn't have enough money to do the job.  The TAC last year estimated that we are behind to the tune of $3.5 billion a year (a year!) when it comes to highway and bridge maintenance. A separate report, by a national group, estimated that one out of four state bridges are "structurally deficient" and that we lead the nation in that dubious distinction.

 

 

 

The bad thing about roads and bridges, to commit a grammatical sin, is that you can't not fix them. Without maintenance, they will deteriorate until they cannot be used. When it comes to a "structurally deficient" bridge, for instance, you have four options: repair it, replace it, close it, or have it fall down.

It's not a political issue; it's an engineering reality.

How to pay for these repairs is, of course, a political matter.  The Motor License Fund gets most of its revenue from various liquid fuel taxes (including the 32.3-cent-a-gallon gas tax) and motor license fees.  (The breakdown is 61% from fuel, 25% from fees.)

It stands to reason that if you want to raise money for he fund, you will have to raise the taxes and fees dedicated to feeding the Motor License Fund.  And that is exactly what the TAC, which was a Rendell era creation, recommended last year.

As TAC put it: "Year after year, there are more infrastructure and services deficiencies than money to address them.  The significant backlog of critical projects hinders the state's economic competitiveness and takes a toll on our people, businesses, and environment."

No one disputes the nature and extent of the problem, even Gov. Corbett, who says the state has neglected highway and bridge repairs. He has told his committee to find a way to raise money and has only set one restriction.  He will not raise the gas tax.

When six out of every 10 cents raised for the Motor License Fund comes from fuel taxes, how do you raise the several billion dollars that is estimated it needs each year? That's a real head scratcher.

To get the money solely from fees would mean astronomical increases. After all, taxpayers are also feepayers and if you tripled the cost of registering a car, they would feel the pain.

It's a delicate issue for Corbett because most of the state's roads and bridges are in rural and suburban counties.  Philadelphia for instance, ranks 54th out of 67 counties in miles of state roads.  (The city has 360.5 miles of state roads. Chester County has 1,021 miles)

You can see for yourself by clicking here.

There is a way to raise a big chunk of that money quickly: transfer the State Police out of the Motor License Fund and back into the state's general fund, which pays for most government operations.  Shifting the police to the Motor License Fund was a Rendell era maneuver, a way to take a costly ($500 million a year) item off the state's books. 

Send the State Police back to the general fund would open up $500 million more for highway and bridge repair.  But how would we pay for the State Police?

A possible answer can be found in new numbers that show that the state ended the last fiscal year with a $785 million surplus - due to post-recession increases in tax revenues.

Remember when the state budget was being debated and Corbett refused to budge on spending any of the surplus?  Instead, he insisted on applying the tourniquet to state funding for basic and higher education, which was slashed by about $1 billion.

It turns out that may have been the governor's way of expressing his priorities: rather than having that money go to education, he wants it for road repair. 

Once the funding commission report is released next month, we'll get a sense if this is Corbett's gambit and how it plays out.

 

-- Tom Ferrick

 

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