One tough 'road' to hoe
Tax increases are the road less traveled these days for the state government, and the results have appeared in the state's actual roads. We're fortunate here in Bradford County that many of the local roads have been improved by natural gas drilling companies, but statewide, according to PennDOT, which has focused its limited resources on bridge repairs in recent years, the miles of poor roads in Pennsylvania have risen from under 7,500 in 2007 to more than 9,200 at the close of 2011.
The question for the government has been not whether to fund a comprehensive repair program, but how to do so.
Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a sweeping answer Tuesday in his budget address to the Legislature. His plan would generate more than $5 billion in total new transportation revenue over the next five years, for highways, bridges, mass transit, ports, railways, airports and related projects.
To pay for it, the governor asked the Legislature to lift a cap on the oil company franchise tax, a levy on the wholesale distribution of gasoline. The levy was capped in the 1980s at the first $1.25 of the wholesale price per gallon. Mr. Corbett's plan is to lift the cap in phases over five years. By the fifth year that would produce about $1.8 billion a year in new revenue for transportation.
At least some of that cost will be passed on to consumers. By the fifth year, the additional tax could amount to between 20 cents and 28 cents per gallon, depending on wholesale prices and how much of the increase is passed on by wholesalers.
Mr. Corbett's plan would mitigate the increase through a reduction of 2 cents per gallon in the 12-cents-per gallon liquid fuels tax.
To the governor's great credit, he rejected some of his fellow Republicans' calls to remove mass transit funding from general transportation funding. At the fifth year, the plan would generate $250 million a year for mass transit statewide.
Transit is more crucial than ever. According to Texas A&M University's annual study of traffic congestion, American commuters wasted $121 billion worth of time waiting in traffic in 2011, up $1 billion from 2010 - an average of $818 each. Clearly strong transit is crucial to the economy.
Just as vital in Pennsylvania are reliable highways. The projects themselves will boost employment and the economy and support other, untold jobs statewide that rely on transportation.
Lawmakers might choose to mitigate the governor's proposed tax increase by substituting increased license and registration fees. But they should keep the basic plan, recognizing that transportation infrastructure is crucial and expensive.