Rendell calls on lawmakers to act on road maintenance

HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell said Monday "there is no excuse" for lawmakers to put off dealing with how to pay for maintaining Pennsylvania's roads and bridges, setting the stage for a showdown over the state's growing transportation funding problem.

Rendell said he wants legislators to return in late August for a special session to map out a solution to closing a $472 million funding gap created when the federal government earlier this year rejected the state's proposal to put tolls on I-80.

The response from top Republican legislators: Wait till next year. They evince a growing desire to deal with the issue after a new governor is inaugurated in January.

"That's not acceptable," Rendell said Monday during a noon news conference in the Capitol. "We would lose $472 million of funding this year, and 100 bridge projects and over 300 road projects would have to be discontinued."

"We've got to act," he added. "This is the time for political courage."

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), said that because there was no consensus on a funding plan, the current focus was on forthcoming Senate Transportation Committee hearings on the issue. One is scheduled for tomorrow, at which Rendell is expected to testify.

Arneson said that if the hearings produce a solution acceptable to all sides, "that would be terrific."

"It's not that there's a desire to wait until next year to resolve this, so much as it is an understanding that this is a difficult issue and a multifaceted issue" and could take time to resolve, Arneson said.

He and other Republicans dispute that there is an absolute deadline for action, while acknowledging there could be delays in road and bridge projects if the debate gets pushed to January.

Rendell had initially called for taxing profits of major oil companies or leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Neither idea gained much support.

On Monday, he said he would sign on to raising all transportation fees - such as for driver's licenses, inspection stickers, and vehicle registrations - by the rate of inflation since the last time they were increased.

To support his argument, his office put out a fact sheet showing, for example, that the state's annual $36 car registration fee had not gone up since 1997 and that raising it to $45 would generate more than $70 million for road repairs.

Rendell said raising the various fees, together with a proposed increase in the gasoline tax of about 3 cents per gallon, would bring in the needed money. The gasoline tax currently is 31.2 cents a gallon, state officials said.

Rendell said he would also support "electronic surveillance" on the turnpike to generate an additional $30 million. Asked later to explain this, his spokesman, Gary Tuma, said the idea was to set up cameras that would snap photos of license plates so officials could determine if drivers' registrations and insurance were up to date - and fine them if they were not.

Most of those fees-and-fines proposals, like the call for an August session, got little traction in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Rendell had initially called for both chambers to convene a special session in Harrisburg on Tuesday to start talks on how to come up with road-repair money. But lawmakers are on summer break and not due to return until September.

Even then, they have only a handful of session dates scheduled before the November election, making it tough to tackle any big-ticket items.

And they already have their hands full. During June negotiations on the state budget, Rendell and top lawmakers agreed to put off until September the debate on several critical policy questions, including how to tax the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale. That could eat up a large chunk of the legislature's limited time.

All the more reason, Rendell said Monday, for the legislature to act now. "There is no excuse," he said.


Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.