Pennsylvania congressional delegation deadlocks on transportation bill
Members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation agree that passing a bill to pay for the country’s aging roads and bridges should be a top priority this year, but members disagree on its funding.
Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, the most senior of Pennsylvania’s federal lawmakers, said Friday that he supports a user fee to replenish the highway trust fund, which neared insolvency last year until lawmakers passed short-term funding that expires in May.
“I really wish that we could just face up to the reality that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth paying for. The idea that we try to find ways like closing the post office on Saturdays or (rely on) offshore oil revenues to fund the transportation bill strikes me as not the way to go,” Doyle said. “I really think it should be a user fee. You don’t let the infrastructure of your country crumble and say, ‘We’re not going to fix it because nobody wants to pay for it.’ Why not make the people who use the highway pay for the highway bill?”
Doyle pointed to raising the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gasoline tax, which has not increased since 1993, or tolling some interstates such as Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania. The highway fund dwindled as vehicles became more fuel-efficient and infrastructure repair costs increased.
“I think when you explain where the money goes, people understand,” Doyle said.
His comments were made less than a week after Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, ruled out a gasoline tax increase or other motorist user fees. Shuster’s spokesman said his boss was unavailable for comment Friday but pointed to earlier comments.
“The president has ruled out a gas tax (increase); I don’t think there’s a will in Congress, and the American people don’t want it,” Shuster said. He added that a vehicle-miles-traveled tax was “never really on the table,” pointing in part to lawmaker hesitancy over technical challenges of the government’s tracking motorists’ mileage.
Shuster said a long-term highway bill may be paid by repatriating offshore corporate taxes or from oil exploration and production offshore and on federal lands — proposals that supporters of a gasoline tax hike contend are not long-term answers.
Congress has been in a deadlock since 2009 over the best way to pay for highways, opting to pass a series of short-term fixes.
“There’s no question there has to be a federal funding stream. We think the fairest way is a fuel tax. That way everyone who drives and uses it pays,” said Jim Runk, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association. “We’re opposed to tolling. You have to set up toll collectors and an administration to handle that, meaning less money into roads and bridges.”
Fellow Pennsylvania Republican Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Mike Kelly, R-Butler, support the offshore drilling route. Murphy’s chief of staff, Susan Mosychuk, said Murphy introduced a bill to do that and that a gas tax increase is not necessary.
“Murphy’s bill expedites production of offshore energy resources and dedicates new royalty revenues on infrastructure repairs as well as paying down the nation’s debt,” Mosychuk said.
Tom Qualtere, Kelly’s spokesman, echoed that, saying, “Kelly has been supportive of encouraging and developing our resources on federal lands and on the Outer Continental shelf and believes that we should use the royalties, etc., for our general transportation fund.”
The state Legislature passed a transportation funding bill that took effect in 2014. Act 89 raises the wholesale gasoline tax over five years and other vehicle-related fees. PennDOT officials said the state gets about $1.5 billion annually of federal funds.
“Act 89 has given us the resources to weather short-term impasses. We need Washington to reach a solution on transportation, so the benefits of Act 89 are not undercut over the longer term,” PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or [email protected].