Without I-80 tolls, a gas tax may be needed

Trucks using Interstate 80 to climb through Western Pennsylvania near DuBois. A state plan to put tolls on I-80 has been rejected again by federal transportation officials. (PAUL NUSSBAUM / Staff)


Washington’s rejection of tolls on I-80 should compel Pennsylvania officials to swallow hard and raise the gasoline tax to pay for transportation needs.
Tolling I-80 was a sensible, fair plan to raise money needed annually for the state’s roads, bridges, and 73 public-transit systems. The legislature approved this long-range fund in 2007, also raising turnpike tolls. But the Federal Highway Administration now has rejected placing tolls on I-80 for the third time under two presidents, one Republican and one Democrat. It’s time for state officials to recognize a flaw in Act 44: It relied on someone else’s approval.
In the budget year that starts July 1, the state would fall short by about $470 million for repairs to roads and bridges, and for improvements in mass transit. It would mean allowing 100 crumbling bridges or 300 miles of damaged highways to go without repairs. SEPTA alone would lose about $110 million intended for capital projects such as the “smart-card” fare system and station renovations.
The FHA’s decision comes at a particularly bad time. Gov. Rendell’s proposed budget for next year anticipated a deficit of about $500 million. But tax collections in March lagged behind projections, and the shortfall by July 1 could approach $1 billion. Add to that the loss of transportation funding, and the state’s projected deficit may nearly triple in less than a week.
Republican legislators argue for cuts to balance the budget. Given the sluggish economy, trimming no doubt will need to be done again. But the backlog of transportation repairs can’t be patched over with budget cuts.
Transportation funding is a public-safety issue as well. One reason for Act 44 was a study that found Pennsylvania should be spending $1.7 billion more per year on deteriorating roads, bridges and transit systems.
Rendell is calling a special legislative session to address transportation funding. Among the options are raising the state gas tax, now at 31.1 cents per gallon, or imposing a gross-profits tax on oil companies. A hike in the gas tax would fall on people who use the state’s roads, including long-haul truckers and other out-of-state drivers. It would provide a reliable, annual source of money for upgrading the transportation network. And it would encourage less use of a fuel that harms the environment. A 7.6 cents-per-gallon increase would raise $472 million per year.
Rendell in 2007 proposed a separate tax on oil companies that would have raised more than $700 million per year. It’s a reasonable alternative, if there’s no stomach to raise gas taxes. There’s compelling evidence that big oil companies use loopholes to avoid paying their corporate income taxes in Pennsylvania.