HARRISBURG — The state has been diverting billions of gas tax money away from road and bridge work to cover the cost of state police patrols, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Thursday.
DePasquale said his new audit of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation shows the agency could be further along in repairing rough highways and fixing 2,829 structurally deficient bridges with the billions of dollars it has used instead to pay to State Police.
Transfers from the Motor License Fund to State Police have totaled more than $4.25 billion since the 2012-13 fiscal year, money that PennDOT could otherwise have used to address a growing list of needed repairs across the state. This year's budget calls for spending $2.85 billion from the Motor License Fund -- including $1.327 on roads and bridges and $738 million on state police.
“That $4.25 billion could have cut that list in half and if PennDOT could use all of the gas tax money for roads and bridges we could get that number to zero in about 5 years,” he said.
Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed a per-capita fee, based on population size on communities without local police departments, to generate additional funding for state police as the state seeks to decrease the amount coming out of the gas tax fund.
“It is important to note that the budget now caps and decreases this transfer each year,” Wolf’s spokesman J.J. Abbott said. “Governor Wolf has proposed a specific plan to address this funding gap for the last few years. We appreciate the Auditor General’s support in this effort, and his acknowledgment of the improvements made under this administration.”
The controversy comes as state police function as the primary police presence in much of rural Pennsylvania.
Last year alone, seven local police departments disbanded, leaving the communities relying on state police for protection, state police Lt. Col. Robert Evanchick said in a budget hearing this spring.
“Because our budget is primarily driven by personnel costs, decreases to it could result in future Cadet classes being canceled,” Evanchick said in testimony provided to lawmakers. Wolf’s budget calls for three new classes of state police cadets.
The highway department has begun referring to structurally-deficient bridges as bridges in “poor” condition to match the term used by the federal government, said Alexis Campbell, a PennDOT spokeswoman.
From 2014 and scheduled through the end of 2019, PennDOT has awarded contracts to address 1,549 poor-condition bridges. The number of state-owned bridges in poor condition has decreased by more than 53 percent from a high of over 6,000 in 2008 to roughly 2,800.
The average bridge replacement costs $3 million, Campbell said.
Under the state Constitution, proceeds from the Motor License Fund are to be used solely for the construction, maintenance and repair of and safety on public highways and bridges.
“There’s a whopping 57.6 cents of state tax added to each gallon of gas sold in Pennsylvania,” DePasquale said, noting that adds $5.76 to the cost of every 10 gallons of gas put in the tank. “Pennsylvanians are frustrated that our roads and bridges still need so much help at the same time we are paying the highest gas tax in the United States.”
The controversy over the use of gas tax funding to pay for state police has been festering for years. Those seeking to draw attention to it welcome the auditor general’s move to draw attention to the issue, said Jason Wagner, director of government affairs for the Associated Pennsylvania Constructors, a trade group representing road-building contractors.
Those concerns were amplified by Act 89, the 2013 law that gave Pennsylvania the highest gas tax in the country, he said.
“It was a monumental piece of legislation for infrastructure,” Wagner said.
The problem is that the public was told that the tax was going to pay for bridge and road work and a lot of it is not.
“People get anxious when they hear of the money getting diverted,” Wagner said.
His group has calculated that the amount being diverted for state police is the equivalent of 12 cents of the gas tax. They’d like to see the state wean itself out of using gas tax dollars for state police, he said. If the state decreased that diversion by the equivalent of 1 cent of gas tax per year, the fund would be whole in 12 years, Wagner said.
He said he doesn’t know of any legislative proposals moving at the Capitol to accomplish that, yet.
State officials have justified the use of gas tax funding for state police by asserting that patrol costs qualify as public safety on the highways, Wagner said.
A 2017 study by the state’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee explored the issue by trying to quantify how much of state police time could be considered patrol activity. They concluded that the state was diverting $220 million a year to state police than appropriate.
The General Assembly did act to phase in a cap on the amount of money going to State Police from the Motor License Fund, DePasquale said. In the 2017-18 fiscal year, State Police received $789.5 million from the fund.