Pa. gov's transportation plan gets Senate hearing

Pa. senators hear gov's plan for higher fuel tax defended as cheaper than congested roads

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) -- Pa. Gov. Tom Corbett's transportation secretary said Tuesday that he doesn't know how much of a proposed wholesale gas tax increase would borne by consumers, but he defended his boss' multibillion-dollar transportation funding plan as cheaper than the cost of sitting on congested roadways.

Corbett and Secretary Barry Schoch, who took questions from Senate Transportation Committee members on the week-old plan, are trying to strike a delicate balance: They must satisfy lawmakers, many of whom want more money more quickly for transportation, and a general public that is unenthusiastic about paying for it.

The plan to generate more than $5 billion over five years to improve roads, bridges and mass transit services involves raising wholesale taxes on the fuel that gas stations buy. If the whole increase is passed along to consumers, it would cost the average motorist $2 a week, Schoch said.

To sway public opinion, and perhaps skeptical lawmakers, Corbett and Schoch have begun stressing the cost of doing nothing and the public safety of 1.5 million Pennsylvania children on school buses every weekday.

"For the future generations, putting this off isn't going to help anyone," Schoch told the committee. "Doesn't help our economy, doesn't help safety, and I think most importantly, for all of us parents, it doesn't help children. Putting it off simply becomes more expensive as we continue to defer this into the future."

Of more than 40,000 miles of state-maintained highways, one in five of those miles need repaving or more substantial work, according to the Department of Transportation. About 20 percent of state-owned bridges are in need of repair and the state's public transit agencies routinely battle budget deficits in their fight to maintain their existing services.

Schoch has not said exactly which projects would be addressed first with the money, although Tuesday he said an additional $200 million to $300 million — on top of $1.8 billion already scheduled — could go into road and bridge construction this summer if the Legislature approves a transportation funding plan before then. It would be the first increase in fuel taxes for transportation since 1997, said Cambria County Sen. John Wozniak, the committee's ranking Democrat.

Schoch said truck drivers or farmers drive an average 16 miles to get around a weight-restricted bridge, burning three gallons of gas in a heavy vehicle. Motorists commuting to work burn a gallon of gas a day while sitting in urban congestion, Schoch said.

"What's less expensive? Paying to solve the problem or continuing to ignore it while you're wasting more fuel?" he asked rhetorically.

For lawmakers who question how the Department of Transportation already spends billions of dollars a year, Schoch stressed its efforts to become more efficient. The agency, he said, is saving $50 million to $70 million a year by streamlining practices and has found it can save money by standardizing bridge designs.

In a Franklin and Marshall College poll taken Jan. 29 through Feb. 2, 82 percent of the people surveyed said the state should be spending more on roads and transit. But 47 percent said they would oppose a plan to raise taxes and fees, while 43 percent said they would support it.

On Tuesday, Schoch said it is impossible to say how much of an increase in the Oil Company Franchise Tax will be passed along to consumers. There is no direct correlation between a state's tax structure and the price of gas, he said.

"We don't know and probably never will know," he said.

The state Department of Revenue said in an April 2012 briefing paper for the oil and gas industry that "liquid fuels and fuels taxes are borne by the consumer" and former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, said in the text of his 2007 budget speech that "our prior experience demonstrates that any such hike in the Oil Company Franchise Tax would be passed on to motorists."