Pa. House OKs transportation bill it rejected a day earlier

Posted: November 21, 2013

HARRISBURG - In a rare and abrupt turnaround, the state House on Tuesday approved a $2.3 billion transportation-funding proposal that had failed only 24 hours earlier.

The 104-95 vote clears the way for the Senate to take up the measure Wednesday. If it passes, the legislation would be positioned for a final vote in the House as early as Thursday.

The proposal - one of Gov. Corbett's top agenda initiatives - would increase gas taxes and motor vehicle license fees to raise $1.65 billion needed to repair aging bridges and roads and about $475 million for cash-strapped mass-transit systems.

"Today, the House of Representatives made a dramatic choice to invest in the future of Pennsylvania," Corbett said in a statement. "In doing so, they have set the stage for the safety of our children and the economic prosperity of Pennsylvania."

Though a similar funding bill passed overwhelmingly in the Senate in June, GOP leaders in the upper chamber declined late Tuesday to predict the bill's chances for passage, because the House bill contains changes to the state's prevailing-wage law that were not in the original bill.

"We will caucus on what was approved by the House tonight and proceed from there," said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) "That said, what the House approved appears to be fairly close to what a strong bipartisan majority of the Senate approved in Senate Bill 1."

Tuesday's vote blurred party lines, garnering support from moderate Republicans in the Southeast as well as opposition from Democrats at both ends of the state opposed to a provision affecting wages on transportation projects. Currently, "prevailing," or roughly union-scale, wages must be paid to workers on transportation projects costing at least $25,000. Under the new bill, that threshold would rise to $100,000.

Democrats said that would drive down wages for workers, and some unions feared it could erode higher-scale wages in other sectors down the road.

Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said that given that most transportation projects cost far more than $100,000, the provision would have applied only to 17 state projects in the last year and would likely largely affect only municipal projects in rural areas.

The dramatic shift of the bill's fortunes in the House came a day after lawmakers narrowly defeated the measure in a 103-98 vote. Tuesday's turnaround came with several Republicans and a handful of Democrats flipping from nay to yea.

Schoch said he and other Corbett officials worked through the day to persuade some lawmakers to support the legislation.

He said after the vote that he did not make promises to get specific transportation projects in their districts done more quickly. "Some members thought they didn't have to vote for it and today realized they did," Schoch said. "House leadership worked hard to get the votes."

During a brief floor debate, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler) decried what he called the "Corbett tax hike." Other Republicans said that with gas prices expected to rise, the bill would harm the rural poor who have to drive long distances to work.

Most of the Philadelphia delegation - and many suburban Republicans and Democrats - supported the bill because of its dedicated transit funding.

"As many as 50,000 jobs could be created to tackle the growing list of dangerous roads and bridges plaguing the state and stifling economic development," said Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.). "Mass transit, including SEPTA, will get a new lease on life now that common sense and commitment have prevailed."

SEPTA officials applauded the vote, which would avert the adoption of the "doomsday budget" that could mean rail-line closures. "We're just thrilled. . . . It's long overdue, and it looks like we finally are going to be able to address some of the issues we need to deal with," said Joseph M. Casey, SEPTA's general manager.

Casey said SEPTA expected to get about $340 million a year of the roughly $475 million earmarked for public transit in the House measure, and he said SEPTA would move immediately to begin working on bridges and power substations that have been on the brink of failure.

"We have about $500 million worth of desperately needed projects that are ready to go and that will hit the streets within six months," Casey said.

The language from the bill approved Tuesday may be inserted into an existing House bill scheduled for final approval Wednesday in the Senate. If the measure is approved, amending an already-passed House bill, it would then have to return to the House for a concurrence vote.

The proposal would increase motorists' fees - for drivers' licenses, registration, and moving violations - starting in 2015.

It also would lift the decades-old cap on the oil franchise tax, which some say could mean an increase of as much as 28 cents per gallon at the pump based on wholesale prices in 2013.

But Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, who supported the bill, said it was impossible to know how lifting the cap would affect gas prices.

"How much is passed down is determined by competition, and there could be [state] border issues, too," he said. "We now know there will be dollars going into necessary projects that will have good consequences for the commonwealth."


aworden@phillynews.com

717-783-2584 @inkyamy

www.inquirer.com/phillydawg

www.inquirer.com/commonwealthconfidential

Inquirer staff writer Paul Nussbaum contributed to this article.

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