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GUEST EDITORIAL: A looming cliff: It’s time to fund our roads right

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The taxes, tolls and fees meant to keep Pennsylvania moving safely from place to place, off course for a dozen years, appear headed toward a responsible track. This should be a top priority as lawmakers put together next year’s state budget.

In 2008, a law known as Act 44 forced the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to begin sending money to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for mass transit and road and bridge improvements beyond the 522 miles the commission manages. It was forced to pay PennDOT $750 million in 2007, $850 million in 2008, $950 million in 2009 and $450 million per year ever since for a total of nearly $7 billion so far.

Those payments prompted the turnpike to take on about $6.5 billion in extra debt and to hike tolls approximately 6% per year since 2008. The cash toll for a trip from Pittsburgh to Valley Forge (where many exit for Philadelphia) rose from $15.25 that year, cash or E-ZPass, to today’s $39.30 in cash or $27.90 via E-ZPass.

Be aware of changes in the traffic flow in the construction area of Interstate 83 and Mount Rose Avenue. Crews are moving north bound lanes, Sunday, January 27, 2019.
John A. Pavoncello photo

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Call that strike one in the game Harrisburg has played with transportation funding over the past dozen years.

Strike two was the General Assembly’s 2012-13 budget, which shifted a large portion of the Motor License Fund, money raised by gasoline and diesel taxes and license and registration fees, to the state police. While state police fit in with the state constitution’s mandate that such monies support road construction and maintenance and the safety of our public highways and bridges, the 65% of the state police budget being covered by those dollars is beyond the estimated 47% of state police effort put toward patrolling our highways.

In 2013, the Legislature and then-Gov. Tom Corbett boosted the Motor License Fund by effectively giving Pennsylvania the highest gasoline tax in the nation. The measure, known as Act 89, also shifted all of the turnpike’s $450 million per year obligation to PennDOT toward mass transit. State police’s share of the Motor License Fund since has been put on track to be capped at nearer what’s needed to patrol our highways.

Bills that would reduce the turnpike’s burden faster and more quickly wean state police from road repair funds are moving in the Legislature.

Strike three will come if those bills languish, if nothing substantial is done in next year’s budget to speed the process of putting our state’s transportation funding on a more sustainable path.

The turnpike’s annual $450 million obligation to mass transit drops to $50 million in 2022, which state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, calls “a big cliff to jump off in one year.”

And, given the state’s improved finances, the time for the state Legislature to end its game of chicken with that cliff is now.

After making the first deposit into the state’s Rainy Day Fund in nearly 10 years last year, Gov. Tom Wolf added $317 million this year, bringing the total to $370 million. State revenues are up 22% over the past five years.

With the state’s coffers flush enough to boost its savings account, it’s time to give turnpike drivers a break from the big toll increases of the past 12 years; another 6% boost is coming in January. State police shouldn’t be relying on a source of money meant for road repairs. And Pennsylvanians, who’ve been paying the nation’s highest gasoline tax since 2014, deserve to see those funds spent as promised.

— From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's editorial board.