Thursday, October 25, 2007

House plan would make I-80 a toll road - Republicans failed to postpone a vote. Senate prospects are uncertain.

By Paul Nussbaum - Philadelphi Inquirer Staff Writer - Jun. 22, 2007

HARRISBURG - Democratic legislators, narrowly in control of the state House, pushed yesterday for new funding for mass transit and highways, setting the stage for a battle with the Republican-controlled Senate.
Rather than lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private company to raise the money, as requested by Gov. Rendell, the House plan would expand the turnpike commission's domain by making Interstate 80 a toll road.

And it would call for more local funding for transit, with authority for local governments to raise taxes to pay for it.

An initial vote on the measure was delayed until Monday, after contentious debate on the House floor that lasted until nearly 11 p.m. If it receives initial approval on Monday, the bill would still face a final vote before it could be sent to the Senate.

SEPTA officials, facing the prospect of steep fare hikes and service cuts without $100 million in additional state money, were cautiously optimistic that lawmakers were moving toward a solution. But they weren't popping any champagne corks yet.

"We're very pleased that we're seeing a lot of activity, but we're not there yet," SEPTA general manager Faye Moore said yesterday.

The House bill would provide about $102 million more in operating funds for SEPTA for the budget year that begins July 1.

The bill would fund transportation by borrowing against future toll increases on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and newly created tolls on I-80 across northern Pennsylvania. The increases and new tolls would be deferred until 2010.

Any tolls on I-80 would require approval by the Federal Highway Administration.

Tolls on the turnpike would rise by 25 percent in 2010 and about 2.5 percent a year after that. Tolls on I-80 would be set at the same per-mile rate (currently about 8 cents a mile) as those on the turnpike.

The House bill would raise an estimated $705 million in the next fiscal year, with $305 million earmarked for transit and $400 million for highways and bridges. The total funding is expected to rise to $900 million by 2010.

The amounts fall well short of $1.7 billion a year that a state panel calculated was necessary to repair highways and bridges and shore up mass-transit systems. Rendell proposed to raise $965 million a year for highways by leasing the turnpike and $760 million a year for transit by imposing a tax on oil company profits.

The House proposal, a 57-page amendment by majority whip Rep. Keith McCall (D., Carbon) to House Bill 1590, would increase funding from local governments (to 20 percent from the current 13 percent of state funding) and would authorize them to raise money by increasing the realty transfer tax, the earned income tax, the sales tax, or a parking surcharge.

The measure would also increase Philadelphia's clout on the SEPTA board of directors. The board would be increased from 15 members to 21, and counties would be allotted members on the board according to their share of local funding, up to eight members for counties that provide at least 50 percent of the local funding. Currently, Philadelphia provides 80 percent of the local operating funding to SEPTA.

Rep. Tom Killion (R., Delaware), a former SEPTA board member, criticized that change.

"We're about to shift all the power on that board to the city of Philadelphia," Killion said. He said the change would remove the incentive for the five counties to work together to run SEPTA.

And Rep. Mario Civera (R., Delaware), the ranking Republican on the appropriations committee, asserted that the change was "a Philadelphia grab. . . . Don't push this down our throats."

Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was conciliatory, telling Civera that "this is only the first step in a long negotiation. . . . We're going to work together."

With eight days left in the budget year, Evans reiterated his vow to block passage of a new budget unless the Senate approved funding for mass transit this month.

"They can't wait till fall," Evans said in an interview yesterday.

Senate Republican leaders indicated little desire to immediately tackle the funding issue. "I don't know that it can get approved in the next week, and I don't know that it's a crisis if it doesn't," said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate majority leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware). "Sen. Pileggi's goal is to address this, but not in a way that makes members feel rushed."
Read more in the Philadelphia Inquirer

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