Inquirer Editorial: All aboard transit bill

Officials inspect a deteriorated bridge in Bucks County last week.
Officials inspect a deteriorated bridge in Bucks County last week. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff)
Posted: November 13, 2013

There's no business more pressing for state lawmakers returning to Harrisburg this week than reaching an agreement on a long-sought plan to address Pennsylvania's sagging bridges, crumbling roads, and aging mass transit systems.

Without a transportation funding deal, the condition of the state's infrastructure will become increasing bleak. Another 250 of Pennsylvania's 4,500 substandard bridges will be weight-restricted next year, forcing school buses, ambulances, delivery vans, and other heavy vehicles to take longer routes. The commonwealth's backlog of 9,000 miles of deficient highway will grow. And passengers in transit-dependent communities from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh will be hit by service cuts.

The political imperative for acting now is just as clear. An election in which voters will choose a governor and most members of the General Assembly looms a year ahead. If lawmakers' reluctance to raise taxes and fees during an election year works in favor of reaching a deal soon, so much the better.

For those who would kick the can even farther down the road, state Department of Transportation chief Barry J. Schoch has a sobering message: He estimates that another $350 million in deferred projects pile up every year. The problem isn't going away, says Schoch, and the price tag will only get bigger.

A solid majority of state senators have already demonstrated their grasp of the problem - as has Gov. Corbett, who recently urged lawmakers to act in no uncertain terms. Before the summer break, the Senate approved a progressive, workable plan to raise $2.5 billion a year through higher fees for motorists, surcharges for speeding and other traffic violations, and an increase in wholesale gasoline taxes. The funding, which would ramp up over several years, would include a critical infusion of about $400 million a year for SEPTA to maintain its rail bridges, stations, and equipment. That should head off a series of doomsday cuts that would strand thousands and cripple the region's commuter network.

After much debate and a round of Philly-bashing, which seems to have become a prerequisite for sensible boosts in transit aid, the Repupblican-controlled House has crafted a counterpart to the Senate bill. While the House plan would spare drivers some fee increases and make other tweaks, it would provide nearly as much funding as the Senate measure.

Last month, a House vote was delayed by a dispute over easing wage supports for certain transportation projects. Democrats were opposed to the idea. But given that the GOP-led proposal has bipartisan and union support, the issue should not become an obstacle to a larger deal.

Recent progress toward an agreement offers reason for hope. And the dire condition of the state's bridges, roads, and transit systems should create a sense of urgency.

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