Roads can't wait any longer

An exit off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)

Whether or not Harrisburg lawmakers face up to a range of thorny issues this fall, one thing’s certain. At some point, they’ll all get in their cars and head for home over an untold number of unsafe bridges and miles and miles of roads in dire need of repair.

By then, it may be too late if lawmakers have not checked off their to-do list the state’s transportation funding needs — estimated at a staggering $3.5 billion a year for highways and transit.

So, obviously, they shouldn’t leave work without it.

That was the smart message delivered Monday by Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R., Jefferson). The drive for greater transportation funding “should have begun yesterday,” said the state Senate’s top Republican in challenging Gov. Corbett to lead the effort.

The next day, though, came discouraging word from Corbett’s transportation chief, Barry Schoch, that the governor might want to move cautiously out of concern for the economy.

Schoch conceded that delaying investments will trigger bridge closings and even worse road conditions. Yet, that’s no surprise, since the funding crisis has been brewing since 2007 — when state officials failed to deliver on a plan to add long-haul tolls to Interstate 80.

Indeed, Corbett’s own transportation advisory panel two months ago recommended a workable menu that included increased fees and lifting wholesale fuel taxes to generate $2.5 billion yearly.

Even in the toughest times, roads and bridges in danger of collapsing represent infrastructure needs that the state cannot afford to leave unaddressed.

On this issue, of course, Corbett is strapped tightly into the driver’s seat by his foolish no-tax pledge. That means he’s not going to be the one to raise his hand in favor of adding a few pennies to the state’s retail gasoline tax.

But a gas-tax hike would be the best broad-based solution, one that raises millions of dollars and addresses the unfairness of Philadelphia-area motorists’ having to pay a heavier burden for transportation needs due to escalating turnpike tolls.

So, it may be up to lawmakers to show leadership on this issue, instead of waiting on Corbett to push an aggressive measure like bumping up the gas tax. From a political stance, it’s the right time, since lawmakers don’t face the voters until next year.

As for the economy, a minimal increase in the gas tax won’t even be noticed by most motorists, who are seeing pump prices head down toward $3 a gallon. It’s time to get moving on transportation funding before a bridge collapse makes this a life-and-death crisis.