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If you want to know why we don’t have enough money to repair Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges, go to the nearest mirror and tell me what you see. That’s you, pal.
You are one of the causes of the multi-billion shortfall in money that goes into the Motor License Fund, the special fund that pays for repairs and reconstruction of the state’s 40,000 miles of roads and 26,000 bridges.
Remember the day you traded in your beloved Chevy Camaro for a new Honda CR-V? It had to be done. With a baby on the way, you needed a roomier car.
But, you also cut your gas consumption considerably. With a Camaro, your annual gas bill was about $3,900 a year. In your Honda, driving the same miles costs $1,950 year.
Every gallon of gas saved means 32.3 cents less goes to the state in fuel taxes.
Multiply this example by many thousands of times and what is the result? As it turns out, going ‘Green’ has collateral damage; given that 61 percent of Motor License Fund revenue comes from wholesale and retail taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel.
For decades, the costs of maintaining the roads and bridges and the rise in fuel consumption went hand in hand, like Astaire and Rogers, in an elegant dance that saw both rise a few percentage points year. The music stopped in 2004. Gasoline consumption declined. People were driving fewer miles in more fuel-efficient cars. The trend accelerated during the Great Recession.
As the two lines diverged, each going in the opposite direction, it created a gap — or “unmet needs” in the measured language of the 2010 Transportation Advisory Commission, a group of experts appointed by then-Gov. Ed Rendell to study the situation.
At the time, the state was spending about $4.8 billion in road and bridge maintenance — which isn’t chump change. But, TAC said, it should be spending $8.3 billion a year, just to keep up with the needs — and it said the gap would grow if nothing was done.
As the TAC report put it: “Year after year, there are more infrastructure and services deficiencies than money to address them. The significant backlog of critical projects hinders the state’s economic competitiveness and takes a toll on our people, businesses and environment.”
Roads and bridges are the province of engineers, who are good at measuring things.
One thing they measure is the punishing these structures take and they can tell with great precision the date they will need repair or replacement.
It is not a guesstimate. It is, forgive the pun, concrete reality.
This reality-based reckoning creates a major problem for the political class. Since the facts are not in dispute, it is hard to deny there is a problem.
And if you cannot deny the problem, that means you are going to have to come up with a solution.
But, what happens if the solution involves raising fuel taxes and licensing fees? The gas tax was last raised in 1997, when regular sold for $1.22 a gallon. It is too low to meet our needs. So, the obvious solution is to increase taxes and license fees to raise the money needed. It’s as simple as that.
Of course, it is not simple. That course of action would require two things in short supply in Harrisburg today: reality-based decision making and political leadership.
Take Gov. Corbett, please.
As we all know, Corbett was elected on a promise of no new taxes, which collides directly with the needs of the Motor License Fund. In 2011, Corbett tried to sidestep the problem by creating a Transportation Funding Advisory Commission (TFAC), not to be confused with Rendell’s TAC.
This panel of experts looked hard at the problems with the Motor License Fund and produced a huge report that I can summarize thusly: We need to raise gas taxes and license fees.
Unlike that scene in Peter Pan where we collectively bring Tinker Bell back to life, clapping real hard won’t solve this problem. This is not Neverland.
On second thought, maybe it is. The only adults in the room in Harrisburg are in the state Senate. They took the TFAC recommendations and — with Corbett’s weak assent — turned it into Senate Bill 1, a PennDOT funding bill that included increases in fuel and license fees to eventually raise an additional $2.5 billion a year.
(I’m not going to go into detail on how they avoided ‘raising’ the gas tax. It was through a lifting of a $1.25 cap set a wholesale fuel taxes, thus allowing Corbett to say he was not increasing a tax, he was removing a cap. The end result is the same. Wholesalers like Exxon and Sunoco aren’t going to eat the increase. Prices at the pump will go up.)
SB1 passed the state Senate in the spring and off it sailed to Neverland, also know as the state House, the stronghold of Tea Party Republicans. They hate taxes even more than Corbett does. They have held up SB1 since the spring trying to find ways to scuttle it.
This week, after more closed-door meetings than there are doors in the Capitol, the House may, could, might finally vote on the bill. Will it pass? No one knows. Will it even come for a vote? Not sure about that either.
The bill could pass if three dozen or so Democrats supply votes for it, along with the majority of Republicans. But, the Democrats have been having too much fun laughing up their sleeves at Corbett’s dilemma — He can’t even get a PennDOT bill passed! — that they haven’t been willing to…well, act like adults. In short, we have a legislative chamber filled with Lost Boys, perpetual 11-year-olds who won’t grow up.
The Tea Party Republican’s take on the bill is interesting. They won’t deny the need for more money to maintain roads and bridges. They simply say their hatred of taxes trumps that need. They don’t want the government on our backs, even if it is trying to repair the main road into town.
The irony is that most of these Tea Party Republicans come from rural counties where state roads and bridges are the lifeblood of local communities. There are no alternate routes and no mass transit. A few years ago, when bridges in tiny Sullivan County washed out because of flooding caused by summer storms, some towns were all-but cut off from civilization. To get to one particular hamlet — Lopez — you had to take a 40-mile detour.
Of the 25 counties with the most miles of state roads, half are sparsely-populated rural counties. By the way, Philadelphia — the evil metropolis — only has 360 miles of state-owned roads and ranks 54th out of the 67 counties.
Opponents of SB1 haven’t felt the need to come up with any strategy other than “No.” If the bill fails to pass this month, it likely will be dead for the rest of the session. Legislators reluctant to vote for taxes in 2013, will be loath to vote for taxes in 2014, when they are up for re-election.
The problem will grow and fester until someone in Neverland comes up with a solution — a real solution.
And, no, clapping your hands real hard will not make the roads and bridges repair themselves.