Senate advances transit package

The plan would provide $750 million for mass transit and road projects. It requires action in both chambers.

HARRISBURG - A state Senate panel approved a transportation package yesterday that would provide $750 million in new funding for highway projects and mass-transit agencies this year.

"I really believe this will solve the mass-transit problem for decades to come," State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.) said.

Fumo, who helped craft the package, said leaders in both chambers had agreed on the legislation, considered a linchpin for passage of a new state budget.

But officials in the House characterized it as something short of a compromise as the state began a new fiscal year without a budget.

"I think it's pretty close," said State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), the Appropriations Committee chairman.

The bill still requires action in both chambers, and the Senate recessed for the evening without taking action.

Gov. Rendell last night chided the senators for leaving. He said that while the bill was "not the optimum" measure, he would have signed it.

Until last night Rendell had repeatedly insisted the legislature give him a transportation bill that provided for $1 billion in funding.

Yesterday afternoon, during a rare weekend session for the legislature, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted, 19-7, to change a transportation package sent over from the House earlier in the week.

The committee upped the package from $700 million this year to $750 million - money that would come from borrowing against future tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and turning Interstate 80 across northern Pennsylvania into a toll road.

The Senate panel also removed a provision in the bill that would have changed the makeup of the SEPTA board to give more power to Philadelphia. The rewritten legislation also would increase turnpike fares by 25 percent starting in 2009 - a year earlier than called for by the House.

Counties would be required to cover slightly more of local mass-transit and road-project costs. They now pay, on average, 13 percent. Under the rewritten bill, that would go to 15 percent.

The House bill had called for counties to kick in a lot more - 20 percent of the cost.

The full Senate is not expected to vote on the changes until later this week, after which the bill would return to the House.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) said there was considerable support in the Senate for the transportation package.

"There is broad agreement, not unanimous agreement," Pileggi said. "I believe there are more than enough votes to pass it."

Of the $1 billion in new funding Rendell seeks, half would go to cash-strapped mass-transit agencies, such as SEPTA, to help them stave off fare hikes and service cuts.

SEPTA, the state's largest mass-transit agency, voted Thursday to hike fares 11 percent starting July 9. Fares would go up more and routes would be cut come September if more money didn't come from Harrisburg.

The package as passed by the House also would have restructured the board of SEPTA. Bucks and Chester Counties each would have had two members; Delaware and Montgomery Counties would have had three; and Philadelphia would have gotten four members. Now, the city and each county have two members apiece on the SEPTA board.

Some legislators opposed that measure, arguing that it would unfairly reduce the power of suburban counties on the SEPTA board.

The SEPTA language was removed from the bill because it was controversial and only muddied the debate, Fumo said. It might reemerge as part of other legislation later in the year, he said.

Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990 or