The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

December 20, 2013

Gas price hike to hit in 13 days

By John Finnerty
The Daily Item

— HARRISBURG — Gasoline prices, permit fees and speeding fines are going to increase as the cost of Pennsylvania’s multi-billion-dollar transportation plan begins hitting motorists Jan. 1.

Prices at the pump could increase 9 cents per gallon, according to Richard Kirkpatrick, a Department of Transportation spokesman, if gasoline companies pass along a tax increase tied to the bill. The law eliminates a retail gasoline tax by increasing the wholesale tax paid by gasoline companies.

It also lifts a cap on the tax rate those companies pay.

By the time the gasoline tax is phased in fully, the cost passed along could be about 28 cents per gallon, most analysts predict.

But that’s just a tiny part of the myriad ways the 127-page bill allows Harrisburg to reach into motorists’ wallets to repair roads and bridges and fund mass transit. Registration fees will increase over the next 18 months, as will surcharges tacked onto speeding tickets.

The fine for running a red light increases sixfold — from $25 to $150. And if you think it’s wise to blow through the EZ Pass lane on the Turnpike without enrolling in the automatic toll payment plan, that could cost you $3,000 — on top of the full toll.

The transportation plan, signed by Gov. Tom Corbett on Nov. 25, promises money to fix thousands of bridges and more than 10,000 miles of roadway, according to PennDOT projections. The ambitious agenda will be funded by the gasoline tax, as well as an array of fee and surcharge increases.

Motorists don’t need to break the law to get hit with sticker shock.

Registration fees for all vehicles will go up in July 2015, with increases tied to the rate of inflation in 2014. After that, fees will increase at the rate of inflation every two years.

Almost all of the major special-interest groups that lobby in Pennsylvania supported the transportation plan. That includes the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

But the Farm Bureau’s general support for increased spending on roads and bridges doesn’t mean that farmers agree with all of the plan’s specifics.

Annual permits for commercial trucks that move fuel oil, glass, wooden structures, animals and feed will increase. The permit for a truck moving animals goes from $400 to $520. The permit for a feed truck increases from $400 to $587.

That rankles Todd Shearer, president of the Mercer County chapter of the Farm Bureau and co-owner of T.R. Shearer Ag Commodities in Carlton.

“We support upgrading the infrastructure,” Shearer said. “I don’t mind paying a little more (in gas tax).”

But the fees rub salt in the wound, he said. Shearer’s business has 13 trucks. The fees are particularly annoying because PennDOT makes businesses procure permits based on what a truck hauls. A single truck may need multiple permits.

By law, money from the gasoline tax must go toward road and bridge work. The state has an easier time shifting money from fee increases, said Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford County, a critic of the increased transportation spending.

“About $500 million a year more will go to mass transit each year by January 2017 — about $400 million of it to Philadelphia since 80 percent of all mass transit trips in PA are there,” Roae said. “If you get a $100 surcharge on a ticket in the Meadville area, $80 of it will be sent to Philadelphia.”

A counterpoint to that is the case made by PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch, that gasoline taxes paid by the large number of motorists in the state’s big cities go toward road and bridge work in rural areas, noted Mark O’Neill, spokesman for the state Farm Bureau.

As a result, O’Neill said he sees little problem with Pennsylvania’s use of vehicle fees to subsidize mass transit systems.