By John Finnerty
The Daily Item Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG — A controversial bid to increase the gas tax to pay for road and bridge repairs has little opposition from the most powerful special interest groups in the state, including those representing the elderly and commuters.
The strongest support has come from construction, engineering and transportation groups, which stand to profit if the state pours billions into additional spending. But the AARP has backed the plan, mainly because it provides money for share-ride services for seniors. And for the most part, so has the Pennsylvania AAA Federation.
Key components of the plan will lead to higher prices at the gas pump and potential increases in registration fees and fines for moving violations.
Those details loom large as leaders huddle behind closed doors while trying to pull together a funding plan that will pass in the state House before the end of the year.
Advocates argue that the impact to drivers of lifting the cap on the Oil Company Franchise Tax would be equivalent to about the cost of a cup of coffee. Based on federal data on average fuel consumption and the average miles driven by motorists, it would cost motorists an average of $2.60 a week if lifting the Oil Company Franchise Tax drives up costs at the pump by 25 cents a gallon.
A survey earlier this year found that 59 percent of Pennsylvanians said they would support a plan that fixed roads and bridges if it cost them an additional $2.50 a week.
Pennsylvania already collects 31.2 cents of tax on every gallon of gas, seventh highest among states.
“The bulk of funding” to repair Pennsylvania’s crumbling transportation infrastructure would come from that increase in gas tax, said Ted Leonard, executive director of the Pennsylvania AAA Federation.
The advocacy arm of AAA preferred the transportation plan put forth by Gov. Tom Corbett more than the one approved by the state Senate. Corbett’s plan would have generated $1.8 billion a year and phased in the gas tax increases over five years.
A Senate bill would generate up to $2.5 billion a year by increasing the cost of vehicle registrations and phasing the gas tax in over three years.
The AAA is wary of plans to add a surcharge on speeding tickets and increase the cost of vehicle registration fees. “Although we have one of the lowest vehicle registration fees in the country, we’d have to see how that would fit with the rest of the proposed increases and the total package,” Leonard said.
The automobile club is also not keen on a plan to shift dollars from the motor license fund to mass transit, Leonard said.
Most of the money that goes into the motor license fund comes from gas taxes and must be put toward fixing roads and bridges, said state Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County. However, there is some “unprotected” revenue from fines that goes into the fund that lawmakers in the Senate diverted toward mass transit in Senate Bill 1.
“We believe every effort should be made to maintain the integrity of the Motor License Fund,” Leonard said.
The Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association has opposed the transportation plan’s dependence on gas tax revenue. But the groups representing school bus operators and trucking companies have supported the plan, arguing that the need for fixing the roads is too serious to ignore.
Trucking firms that are asked to absorb increase costs for fuel and vehicle registration are going to be a disadvantage when competing with trucking companies from neighboring states, said Jim Runk, president and chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association. Despite that, Runk said the trucking industry is willing to go along a plan as long as everyone is treated fairly, and that means shared sacrifice.
Runk said he’s heard rumblings that one of the ideas being bandied about in negotiations is that most motorists would see no increase in registration fees, but commercial vehicles would be asked to absorb an increase. If the plan seems to be picking on truckers, then the Motor Truck Association would withdraw its support, Runk said.