(The Center Square) – A package of transportation revenue options proposed last week will not pass the General Assembly this year, legislators said, leaving questions about how the state will address its multibillion dollar infrastructure problem.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s Transportation Revenue Options Committee published its final report Friday that recommends a patchwork of taxes and fees on drivers, electric vehicles and packages delivered by Amazon, UPS, FedEx and chain grocery stores. It also calls for corridor tolling, surcharges on ride share services, increased registration fees and a phase out of the gasoline tax.
Each vehicle driven in the state would also pay a road use fee totaling 8.1 cents per mile. All told, the proposed options would raise, over the next decade, about $11.4 billion – a little bit more than enough to cover the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s $9.35 billion state-level funding gap, the commission said.
Transportation Secretary Yassmin Gramian, who served as chair of the commission, said Friday the report offers “a host of well-researched options for consideration.”
“This commission represents nearly 50 transportation stakeholders, with a diversity of positions on the potential funding options discussed,” she said. “Those varied perspectives were crucial to our discussions and are represented in the final report.”
Absent from the commission, however, were any legislators from either side of the aisle. Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Bridgeville, said lawmakers watched meetings from the sidelines and couldn’t participate directly.
He told The Center Square on Tuesday that the group never voted on the plan it proposed and essentially threw together a “wish list” that complicates the state’s tax structure and commits “highway robbery” against residents.
“The state government basically nickel and dimes everybody to death and then the governor releases a plan that further nickel and dimes everyone to death,” he said.
Wolf assembled the commission earlier this year after PennDOT released a private-public partnership plan to toll nine interstate bridges that outraged many members of the General Assembly who said increasing costs for drivers amid a pandemic was “unconscionable.” The agency began soliciting contractors for the plan in late June.
Ortitay said this week that the new proposed options, in many ways, are even worse.
“He's a lame duck governor, and our leadership has already alluded to the fact that this is dead on arrival,” he said. “The secretary basically said that this is a top priority over the next six months … but we’re not going to work with you on this. You didn’t include us in the process and now you want to get this passed through the General Assembly? No thank you.”
Neal Lesher, spokesperson for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-Red Lion, confirmed Ortitay’s comment that the revenue options plan is “dead on arrival” in the lower chamber.
In a statement from the committee's Democratic chairman, Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Norristown, commended the commission's work and said the report highlights a number of needs while introducing "viable components of a solution to Pennsylvania’s transportation funding problem."
"It’s time for this General Assembly to get serious about the fiscal cliff we are fast approaching, and determine a sustainable path forward," he said.
Bradford, in the past, has joined other Democrats in criticizing Republicans for rejecting plans that raise money and never offering solutions of their own.
But those opposed to PennDOT's tolling plan and the commission's other ideas say they think the agency should be looking at cutting costs, first.
“I would love for PennDOT to do a commission or a study to actually look at how they are spending money now,” Ortitay said. “There’s no reason why a Scandinavian country can put in a $5 million bridge in two days, while here it takes six months to a year.”
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc, R-Clearfield, has likewise criticized PennDOT’s persistent budget gap, which the agency anticipates will exceed $14.5 billion over the next decade.
He told The Center Square in July he doesn’t think those forecasts are sincere and said there’s no way PennDOT could ever spend that amount of money, even if the Legislature appropriated it.
PennDOT’s funding problem is compounded by a 2013 law, Act 89, which restructured the gas tax to raise more revenue for road and bridge repair that hasn’t kept up with demand. Gramian said the COVID-19's pandemic’s impact on traveling reduced the agency’s revenues by $533 million.
About 75% of funding for transportation projects comes from the state's gas tax revenue, according to PennDOT.
In the report, the agency points to efficiencies it has implemented to save money, including: $38.5 million over a three-year period using lower-cost materials for secondary roads; $49 million over four years through the County Accreditation Program; and $10 million over five years through changes suggested by employees through the WorkSmart and IdeaLink programs.
Ortitay agrees that the state must replace the gas tax as a revenue source, but can’t say for sure whether any of the 18 proposed options would get legislative approval.
“There’s no talk of doing things better – only the need to raise taxes and fees,” Ortitay said. “There should have been a commission put forth to look at how we currently do things versus how other states and countries do them. We should be looking for cost savings, instead of jumping directly toward increasing billions of dollars in taxes and fees.”
Langerholc has said his Drive Smart Act would combine reforms to the public-private partnership program, increases in traffic fines, a reduction in motor license fund transfers and a list of other changes to help shrink the agency’s budget gap. The plan still calls for tolling on the I-95 Gerard Point Bridge in Philadelphia, however.
A $279 million budget appropriation from the state in June, he said, could help launch his plan.
“We targeted these dollars to put Pennsylvania companies and workers back to rebuilding our transportation system,” he said. “This investment will alleviate the immediate concerns we heard over the last several months regarding the transportation shortfalls.”
The state may also see a windfall of federal transportation funding if Congress adopts a $1 trillion infrastructure plan pending in the U.S. Senate. The proposal includes $110 billion for roads, bridges and other major transportation projects.