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Governor seeks overhaul of Pennsylvania’s highway funding

March 12, 2021 GMT
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A person walks past the Interstate-95′s mile-long double-decked Girard Point Bridge in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. PennDOT named several bridges including the Girard Point Bridge that it said it is considering tolling to pay for the reconstruction. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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A person walks past the Interstate-95′s mile-long double-decked Girard Point Bridge in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. PennDOT named several bridges including the Girard Point Bridge that it said it is considering tolling to pay for the reconstruction. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Amid a deepening stalemate over financing highways and public transit, Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday proposed phasing out Pennsylvania’s gasoline tax, the second-highest in the nation, and appointed a commission to recommend alternative ways to pay for the state’s needs.

Wolf ordered a commission of several dozen lawmakers, transportation industry representatives, transportation planners, government officials and others to deliver recommendations by Aug. 1 of funding alternatives to foot the extra billions of dollars deemed to be necessary.

“Our economy, our communities, and our future rely on a strong transportation system that supports our safety and growth,” Wolf said in a statement.

The gas tax that Wolf calls “burdensome” isn’t keeping pace with transportation and safety needs as vehicles become more fuel-efficient and more motorists buy electric vehicles, state officials say.

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States are seeing stagnant revenue from gasoline taxes, the major source of cash for highway construction, and are increasingly experimenting with user fees.

PennDOT has said its current highway and bridge budget for construction and maintenance is about $6.9 billion per year, less than half of the $15 billion that is needed to keep Pennsylvania’s highways and bridges in good condition and ease major traffic bottlenecks.

To raise about $2 billion over the next few years, PennDOT is seeking to add tolls to nine major bridges on interstates around the state to finance reconstruction projects, drawing objections from Republican lawmakers.

Lawmakers are discussing slapping fees on electric vehicles, while Wolf has proposed, without success in the Legislature, ways of weaning the state police budget off highway construction funds.

Meanwhile, the Legislature’s efforts to fund transportation over the last two decades have run up debt and costs to motorists.

A 2007 law siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars from turnpike tolls each year — now more than $7 billion in total since then — has plunged the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission deeper into debt.

The turnpike commission has more than $14 billion in debt, as of last year, double what it reported a decade ago. It paid $652 million in interest and borrowing costs last year, more than half of its total revenue and more than its operating costs for the year, according to its financial statement.

At the same time, turnpike tolls have more than doubled in 12 years to $47 across the length of the highway and more than quadrupled for motorists who don’t have E-Z Pass to $95.30, or almost a quarter per mile.

A 2013 law raised the gasoline tax and various motorist fees to raise more than $2 billion a year for highway construction and other transportation needs.

As a result, Pennsylvania’s gas tax is now No. 2 in the nation, behind California, at 58.7 cents per gallon, according to an analysis by the Washington, D.C.-based Tax Foundation.

Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Luzerne, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, told a House hearing last month that the sprawling expanse of Pennsylvania’s highways and state roads has not kept lawmakers from peeling off almost half of the gas tax revenue for other purposes.

That includes 12 cents a gallon to the state police budget, 8 cents a gallon to local governments, 3 cents a gallon to the Mon-Fayette Expressway’s Southern Beltway in southwestern Pennsylvania and 3 cents a gallon to the Department of Agriculture and other state agencies.

“Nearly half of the gasoline tax that we collect does not go to PennDOT’s responsibility with respect to roads and bridges,” Carroll said.

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Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/timelywriter.