Pa. drivers a step closer to paying higher fees, gas prices

HARRISBURG — In 1997 a postage stamp cost 32 cents, a dozen eggs about $1.17, and a gallon of gas about $1.32.

It was also the most recent time Pennsylvania lawmakers touched the state gas tax to raise more money for roads and bridges, said Senate Transportation Minority Chair John Wozniak, D-Cambria.

As consumer costs have risen, so have the costs for roads.

“I challenge anybody to say they’ve stopped at a convenience store and a cup of coffee is the same today as it was 15 years ago,” Wozniak said. “Government isn’t immune to market forces.”

As a result, drivers may have to pay more, too.

That was the first step in what’s shaping up to be a tense legislative debate pitting transportation needs against new costs for drivers. Senate Bill 1 brings increases on a variety of motor vehicle fees and potential jumps in the cost of gasoline.

But it’s the first comprehensive legislation on the table since Gov. Tom Corbett’s Transportation Funding Advisory Committee identified $3 billion worth of vital infrastructure needs.

Sen. Richard Kasunic, D-Fayette, cast the only committee vote against the proposal, citing uncertainty about how the plan would affect his district. Kasunic wants to see a five-mile stretch of Route 219 connect to a highway in Maryland, which he says will open up his district to new economic opportunities. But so far the project isn’t on the state’s to-do list.

“The potential that is there is tremendous,” he said.

Kasunic is also worried about changes to the gas tax structure.

“My township supervisors don’t know whether they’re getting an increase or not,” he said.

The legislation would generate $1.6 billion of its spending plan by uncapping the oil franchise tax applied to the wholesale price of gasoline. The tax now is only applied to the first $1.25 of a gallon. Uncapping it means gas could cost more, should wholesalers pass those costs along.

The plan also decreases the liquid fuels tax, paid at the gas station by consumers, by 3 cents.

Additional fee increases in the plan would fund mass transit, rail, airport and seaport improvements. Fees would go up for driver’s licenses, renewals and other fees charged by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Those funds, per the state constitution, must be directed toward roads and bridges.

The bill also adds a $100 charge on top of all traffic fines.

Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, voted in favor of the bill. He said he was comfortable with most parts of the legislation, as the increases don’t appear to be arbitrary “revenue generators” and are generally tied to the cost of inflation.

But Eichelberger pointed out one fee increase that he thought deserves a second look – a $9 jump on the cost to obtain motor vehicle history records from the PennDOT, which now cost $5.

“As the chairman said, we’re going to take this through the process and he’s willing to look at issues like I’ve brought up today,” he said. “But what we see as user fees is an accurate description.”

Senate Transportation Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, who sponsored the bill, said he knows the legislation is “not an easy lift” politically. But it’s necessary, he said.

“We cannot overlook our need to provide for the people of Pennsylvania a core function of government, providing for safe transportation,” Rafferty said.

Now that the bill is out of the committee, Wozniak said, the Senate won’t pass it until there’s an agreement with the House.

“The issue is not Democratic, it’s not Republican,” Wozniak said. “It’s not urban, it’s not rural. It’s not just roads and bridges, it’s our ports, it’s our airports.”

Contact Melissa Daniels at melissa@paindependent.com

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