Increase of fees would help offset boost in gas tax
For a group that often has been stalled in the slow lane regarding the commonwealth's many transportation needs, Gov. Tom Corbett and many state legislators suddenly are eager to hit the gas.
Some Senate Republicans not only have embraced the governor's proposal for a significant gasoline tax increase, but have raised the ante by calling for increased fees in drivers' license and vehicle registration fees.
Corbett wants to lift a cap on the state tax applied to the wholesale price of gasoline, which has been limited since the 1980s at the first $1.25 a gallon. Lifting the cap in phases would generate an average of $1.7 billion a year over five years for highway, bridge and mass transit funding.
The tax is on gasoline that retailers buy from distributors. It is not clear how much of that the retailers will pass on to consumers at the pump. Some estimates range as high as 20 cents a gallon; PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch has described it as $2 per week per driver. The governor's plan also calls for a two-cent-per-gallon, 16.6 percent decrease in another gasoline tax to partially offset the likely increase in consumer prices.
Two key Republican senators - Minority Leader Jay Costa and John Rafferty, chairman of the Senate Transporation Committee - said this week that they want to increase the amount of new annual revenue for transportation from $1.7 billion to at least $2.7 billion, up to $2.8 billion.
The extra revenue would come from increases in license and registration fees, which have not increased since 1997 and - unlike gasoline taxes - are somewhat lower than in many other states.
Although the fees would increase, motorists would have to register vehicles every other year rather than annually as a means of reducing administrative costs.
There is no question that Pennsylvania's transportation funding must increase. The commonwealth has more deficient bridges than any other state, and the mileage of roads in need of expedited repairs has grown to more than 7,500, as transit agencies struggle to provide crucial services without a dedicated source of state revenue.
Meanwhile, the Turnpike Commission has been forced to ring up unsustainable levels of debt to fund highway projects, under the ill-considered and failed 2007 law mandating tolls on Interstate 80 - which federal regulators rejected.
The fee increases make sense, but lawmakers should use them at least partially to offset the likely increases in gasoline prices that will result from lifting the cap on the wholesale gasoline tax. Doing so would increase revenue beyond what the governor proposed while mitigating the daily impact on drivers and the economy of substantially higher pump prices.