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Problem Solved
Written November 25, 2013


Two years ago I complained that the Governor was doing nothing about my state’s transportation crisis.  His excuse was that since nobody had done anything to fix it for 25 years, there was no need for a sense of urgency now.

He finally did something.  So I have to give him credit, I suppose.

The crisis was a shortage of money.  Funds were desperately needed for long-delayed infrastructure repairs to highways and bridges, as well as for failing mass transit systems.

Across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, five thousand bridges are structurally deficient.  Other roadways are crumbling.

Moreover, urban rail and bus service can’t survive without subsidies.  Pittsburgh’s Port Authority Transit was faced with cutting service 54% between 2010 and 2012.  Without buses, many workers would have to drive to work, further clogging the highways, while others wouldn’t be able to get to their jobs at all.  Fortunately, after the first round of drastic cuts, unionized bus drivers agreed to new contract provisions — provided that the state eventually provided new funding.

But Governor Tom Corbett, being a Republican, was against new funding for anything.  Rather than propose raising taxes, he appointed a 40-member commission to figure out some other way to come up with the money.  This was a few months after he took office in 2011.  Three months later, the commission recommended a plan to raise $2.7 billion.

Part of the new revenue comes from increasing fees for license plates and such.  Fines will be increased for certain moving violations.  The biggest such hike is for failing to obey a traffic control device, up from $25 to $150.  Now those cameras that automatically catch drivers running red lights will be profitable, and I expect to see a lot more of them installed.  I’m resolving to stop on amber.

However, most of the new revenue is based on uncapping a tax on the wholesale price of gasoline.  Under a system put in place many years ago, wholesale distributors have been paying tax only on the first $1.95 per gallon.  The commission proposed lifting that cap.  Presumably the gas stations’ increased costs will be passed on to their customers, and the retail price of gasoline will rise by an estimated 28 cents a gallon.  But because the consumers will be taxed only indirectly, the politicians can lie by claiming they haven’t really raised their taxes.

The Governor let this recommendation sit on his desk from 2011 until 2013.  That inaction was what led to my complaint.  Not until this year did he start pushing it through the Legislature, eventually winning passage of the bill and signing it on Monday.  Better late than never, I guess.

The final figure is $2.3 billion.  An additional provision makes it easier to fix local streets without raising local taxes:  On small public-works projects costing up to $100,000, municipalities are now allowed to pay their workers less than the prevailing union wage.

Here’s what I think happened.  The Governor and most Pennsylvanians did recognize what one reporter called the “dramatic need for road and bridge projects across the state” and for rescuing the “financially stressed mass transit systems that undergird regional economies.”  Business leaders and others from both parties strongly urged their state legislators to pass the bill.

However, the legislators also have to consider their constituents’ wishes.  Republican voters don’t want any type of tax increase, and rural voters particularly resent having to support bus systems in the far-off big cities.  Democratic voters, especially some union members, don’t want any type of wage reduction, ignoring the fact that the bill could create up to 50,000 new jobs.

Governor Corbett couldn’t even propose the legislation in 2012, because that was an election year and no state representative would dare vote for anything that might anger his constituents.

He did propose a bill in 2013, and to his credit he campaigned vigorously for it.  Here he emphasizes the need by holding up a fallen chunk of concrete.

Others joined the campaign, including Corbett’s Democratic predecessor as Governor, Ed Rendell.

With only a short time remaining before another election year rolled around, the Senate passed the bill.  However, the House narrowly rejected it last week.  Many House members who voted against the legislation were actually in favor of it, but a pro-tax or anti-labor vote on their record could hurt their re-election chances.  Fortunately, some of them reconsidered overnight.  The next day several votes were switched, and the bill was approved.

I like to think the switchers, bravely accepting the political risks, dared to cast their votes for the good of the Commonwealth.  Now the bridges will be fixed, and the buses can keep on running!



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