Pennsylvania may soon have to take its medicine.
And, like many types of medicine, it will do the patient some good.
After years of witnessing the deterioration of our highways, roads and bridges, perennially ranked among the worst in the nation, a proposal unveiled last week in the state Senate would boost funding for transportation by $2.5 billion annually, an increase of almost 50 percent beyond the $5.3 billion currently allotted. Almost $2 billion of the new money would go to highways and bridges, $500 million would be earmarked for mass transit, and the remainder would go to, among other things, ports, airports and trails for walking and biking.
When details of the measure were disclosed last week, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Rafferty pointed out that 95 percent of PennDOT’s current budget goes to maintaining infrastructure. That’s clearly not enough to meet today’s needs, and nor is it sufficient to develop transportation systems that look ahead to future growth. It’s mostly just a pothole-patching game right now.
With the backing of a mix of Democrats and Republicans, organized labor and bike enthusiasts, the bill is also being sold as a solid job-creation measure, with an estimated 100,000 new jobs being generated by it. With so many construction workers either being sidelined or underemployed thanks to the lingering effects of the Great Recession and the housing bust, an increase in transportation spending would put money in the pockets of able-bodied workers and, by extension, boost the overall economy.
However, as the saying has it, there’s no free lunch, and, in this case, the lunch would go on the tab of Pennsylvania drivers.
A primary funding mechanism for the bill would be an increase in the tax on wholesale fuel, which is currently levied on the owners of gas stations. However, it stands to reason that most gas station proprietors will not kindly assume the added cost and give consumers a break. No, chances are, prices at the pump will increase somewhere around 25 cents per gallon if the measure makes it through both houses of the Legislature and is signed by Gov. Tom Corbett in its current form. Moreover, the cost of vehicle registration, last altered in 1997, would increase from $36 for one year to $104 for two years, and driver’s license fees would rise from $29.50 to $50.50, although licenses would only have to be renewed once every six years under the plan, rather than the current four years.
And, if the current wallet-draining price of traffic tickets isn’t already sufficient to make you scrupulously follow every rule and regulation, fines for failure to obey a traffic control device – in others words, flooring it and blasting through a red light – would yield a fine somewhere from $100 to $300, rather than $25, and a $100 surcharge would be tacked on to the fine for moving violations.
Proponents of the bill say it would only cost the average Pennsylvanian somewhere around $2.50 to $3.00 more per week. Nevertheless, we’ll all have a little less change in our pockets if the bill becomes law, particularly those saddled with long commutes.
Still, the price will be worth it.
Without needed road repairs, drivers will be left to pay for the damage our highways and byways inflict on cars. The costs of substandard infrastructure also end up being borne by businesses and consumers. And, if nothing is done to fix the estimated 25 percent of Pennsylvania bridges that are structurally deficient, we can keep crossing our fingers and holding our breaths that one of them doesn’t collapse like the Interstate 35 Mississippi River Bridge did in Minneapolis in 2007.
The Senate proposal is more ambitious than a funding package Corbett advanced earlier this year, and it comes closer to meeting the scale of the problem. This is medicine that has long been put off and should be administered without delay.