2010-07-15 / Local & State

Transportation Needs: Maybe Forgotten But Not Gone

By Peter Jackson ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Among the many big-ticket issues competing for the Legislature’s attention in a financially challenging election year, Pennsylvania’s transportation funding crunch seems destined for the back of the bus.

Lawmakers won’t reconvene until mid-September, leaving only weeks before they break for the final stretch of the election campaigns, and the prospect of any legislative activity after the Nov. 2 elections is cloudy at best.

Leaders of both parties have promised in advance to spend much of that time revisiting a pair of politically thorny subjects left dangling from this year’s budget negotiations – a new tax on natural gas drilling and the creation of an independent fiscal agency in the Legislature.

“It’s not as if (transportation) is the only issue,’’ observed Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, RDelaware.

These days, long-term funding for maintenance of Pennsylvania’s transportation system is a tattered patchwork quilt.

A 2007 law designed to generate $1 billion a year for transportation maintenance depended on half of that money being generated by tolls along Interstate 80, which crosses the state to connect Ohio and New Jersey. Federal regulators scuttled the tolling plan for technical reasons in 2008, leaving a half-billion-dollar gap that has yet to be bridged.

But the problem may be much bigger that that. Earlier this year, the state’s transportation advisory committee said Pennsylvania needs to increase spending by $3.5 billion a year to adequately maintain highways, bridges and transit systems.

Gov. Ed Rendell, whose own proposals to tax the profits of major oil companies or lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike went nowhere, called a special session of the Legislature in May in an effort to refocus lawmakers’ attention on the issue.

So far, that hasn’t happened on a broad scale, although the House and Senate transportation committees have each held multiple public hearings to gather information about raising gasoline taxes or motorist fees and other revenue sources.

The Democratic governor, who will step down in January when his second term ends, has pressed the Legislature to return to Harrisburg this month to deal with the problem.

Rendell says Pennsylvania legislators are paid to work full-time – unlike their counterparts in many states – and owe it to their constituents to ensure adequate funding.

“Either they come back or they tell the people of the state of Pennsylvania that they don’t take their jobs seriously,’’ he said last week.

Rep. Joseph Markosek, chairman of the House committee, said he agrees with Rendell’s earlier assessment that failure to dedicate more transportation money by the end of the year would be disastrous.

Markosek, D-Allegheny, said he is working with fellow House Democrats to craft a bill that will be ready for consideration in September – even though he allows that many Pennsylvanians aren’t convinced that a crisis exists.

“I don’t think it hits home until the bridge in your area shuts down,’’ he said. “Hopefully we’ll show some leadership and other people will follow along.’’

Senate committee chairman John Rafferty, RChester, said he hopes to win passage this year for a bill to allow public-private partnerships on transportation projects, but regards approval of any comprehensive funding package as “highly unlikely.’’

Pileggi pointed out that there is no consensus on the issue in either the Senate or the House. He said he senses a growing desire among lawmakers to put off action until after voters elect Republican Tom Corbett or Democrat Dan Onorato this fall to govern the state for the next four years.

“Given that time frame,’’ he said, “I don’t know what the rush is.’’

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