As bridge toll debate heats up, Wolf pitches ditching Pa. gas tax | Monday Morning Coffee

March 15, 2021 7:19 am

Good Monday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

With gas mileage steadily improving, and hybrid and electric vehicles taking over the roads, Gov. Tom Wolf says he wants to phase out Pennsylvania’s gas tax, which he calls an unreliable source of funding for Pennsylvania’s ever-growing road and bridge needs.

In other words, welcome to Infrastructure Week in Pennsylvania.

On Friday, the York County Democrat announced he’d signed an executive order creating a new “Transportation Revenue Options Commission,” a sprawling, bipartisan body made up of state and local officials that would be charged with coming up with a replacement for the revenue the state currently takes in from the tax.

The panel is set to have its first meeting on March 25, and is supposed to return its funding recommendations to Wolf by Aug. 1, the administration said.

“Our economy, our communities, and our future rely on a strong transportation system that supports our safety and growth. We have more than $9 billion in annual unmet needs across our state-maintained transportation system alone,” Wolf said in a statement released by his office. “At the same time, Pennsylvania is relying too much on outdated, unreliable funding methods, and the federal government hasn’t taken meaningful action in decades.”

The revenue crunch has been compounded by the pandemic. With fewer people traveling, and more working at home, gasoline consumption was down by 10 percent in 2020, according to a recent analysis by the state’s nonpartisan Independent Fiscal Office.

The Department of Transportation, meanwhile, says it has just $6.9 billion in its annual budget to cover $15 billion in necessary repairs.

(Interstate 83 in Cumberland County | Image via Flickr Commons.)

State lawmakers across the state already have started to push back against one potential funding source: PennDOT’s plan to toll nine bridges to pay for their repair and replacement.

The construction work, which is now scheduled to start in 2023, would be done through public-private partnerships with contractors who would design, replace, and maintain the bridges while the state collected the toll revenue. The repairs are expected to cost $1.6 billion to $2 billion. Motorists could expect to pay $1 to $2 a trip, each way, for the life of the management agreement.

Lawmakers have railed against the fact that PennDOT has moved on the tolling plan without seeking legislative authorization. But they gave away that right in 2012, under former GOP Gov. Tom Corbett, when they overwhelmingly approved the creation of a Public-Private Partnership Board authorizing such agreements.

Republican lawmakers, who last took a results-free stab at infrastructure funding in 2019, moved to unring the bell last week as they announced legislation reforming the statute to put a halt to the tolling they authorized in the first place.

“It is greatly troubling that [Gov.] Wolf’s bridge tolling plan gives PennDOT the authority to further tax motorists and appropriate funds without legislative oversight,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, who was in the Senate when the chamber unanimously approved the public-private partnership board, said in a statement.

“The legislation that we have introduced in the Senate today is a way to stand up for the hardworking residents of our Commonwealth and come together to address the negative economic impacts of the pandemic, while forcing government to be accountable to taxpayers,” Baker continued. “We cannot ignore the fact that motorists are already feeling the pain of increased prices when filling their gas tanks, and that Pennsylvania already has a gas tax, which is dedicated to supporting our transportation infrastructure.”

Even if lawmakers get their way, that doesn’t solve the problem of how the state can pay for billions of dollars a year in road and bridge repairs. Expert opinion tends to lean in favor of user fees or tolls for per-miles traveled as the most equitable way to pay for repairs.

“When we pay for most services, we pay directly. Think about your water bill, electric bill, gas bill, cable bill or phone bill. In each case, the charge is based on the amount of the particular service you have used (cubic feet of water, kilowatthours of electricity, etc.),” the libertarian-leaning Reason Foundation wrote in a 2014 paper arguing in favor of user fees  to fund highway repairs. “The same cannot be said for fuel taxes for highway use. In this case, what you pay is not directly related to the amount of use you have made—which is miles of travel on the highway.”

The report notes that the public has always been a hard sell — as evidenced by the current state of the tolling debate, where lawmakers have said they’ve been deluged by calls.

Wolf’s new commission has its work cut out for it.

John L. Micek | Editor-in-Chief

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
Cassie Miller
 leads our coverage this morning with this week’s edition of The Numbers Racket, as she delves into a new report ranking the best states for women — and where Pennsylvania falls in the national firmament.

Monthly checks will to flow to Pennsylvania’s children and families under a tax credit tweak in the new COVID-19 stimulus bill, Elizabeth Hardison reports, breaking down how that will work, and who’s getting the money.

U.S. Census data is going to be ridiculously late. Even still, Stephen Caruso has this can’t-miss explainer on the decennial redrawing of Pennsylvania’s legislative and congressional boundaries. Come for the story, stay for Cassie Miller’s very watchable explainer video contained within it.

Our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune speculate on how an already fragile Philadelphia might react to the verdict in the trial of the Minneapolis cop charged with killing George Floyd last year.

On our Commentary Page this morning, opinion regular Dick Polman explains why President Joe Biden is the best leader for this very unique moment in our history. And a Tufts University expert explains how urban planning and housing policy helped create ‘food apartheid’ in U.S. cities.

En la Estrella-Capital: Encuesta: la mitad de los Republicanos registrados de Pa. dicen que aprueban en contra del Colegio Electoral en las elecciones del 6 de enero.Y ocho Demócratas y seis Republicanos se postulan para el banco de apelaciones de la corte de Pa.

(Image via

Restaurant owners are feeling optimistic about a pandemic recovery, the Inquirer reports.
LancasterOnline talks to Lancaster County restaurant owners about how they weathered the pandemic.
Gas prices in Pennsylvania increased faster than traffic rebounded, the Post-Gazette reports.
After a year of lockdown, Pennsylvania school students are depressed and anxiousPennLive reports.
And because of those school shutdowns, Lehigh Valley parents turned to homeschooling, the Morning Call reports.
Cicadas are set to return to Pennsylvania for the first time in 17 years, the Citizens’ Voice reports.
The pandemic has left some immigrants in limbo, the York Daily Record reports (paywall).

Here’s your #Harrisburg Instagram of the Day:


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Officials in Delaware County have launched an effort to ‘rethink and redesign’ mental health services for school-aged children, WHYY-FM reports.
At the height of the pandemic, Pa. lawmakers still cashed in on big meals and hotel stays, Spotlight PA reports (via WITF-FM).
GoErie talks to the new head of the Erie Art Museum.
Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue will hold an interfaith memorial service this week 
in honor of those lost to the pandemic, the Observer-Reporter reports.
PoliticsPA runs down last week’s winners and losers in state politics. 
Ranked choice voting is starting to gain momentum nationwide, reports.
Two months after the riot, U.S. House lawmakers say they still don’t feel safe, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On.
The House comes in at 12 p.m., the Senate comes in at 2 p.m. for a new week of voting sessions.
And here’s a look at the day’s committee action:
In the Senate:
10 a.m. Senate Chamber:
 Special Committee on Election Integrity and Reform
Off The Floor: Senate Judiciary CommitteeIn the House:
9 a.m., 60 East Wing:
 State Government Committee
9:30 a.m., 205 Ryan: Environmental Resources & Energy Committee
10 a.m.: 515 Irvis: Aging & Older Adult Services Committee
10 a.m, 523 Irvis: Professional Licensure Committee
10 a.m, G50 Irvis: Tourism & Recreational Development Committee

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
The House Republican Campaign Committee holds a 6 p.m. fundraiser at the Kings Mansion in Harrisburg. Admission runs $500 to $5,000.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to loyal reader Harvey Freedenburg, of Harrisburg, who celebrates today. Congratulations and enjoy the day, sir.

Backyard White Supremacy:
Protesters marched and read accounts of racial abuse and harassment in the Biglerville Schools in Adams County over the weekend, PennLive reports.

Our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper have tried out a new mini-golf course in Oakland, and have pronounced it terrific.

Luck of the Irish?
The Morning Call runs down the list of St. Patrick’s Day-related events in the Lehigh Valley this year.

Heavy Rotation.
I was reminded all over again over the weekend of the wonder that is The Four Tops’ ‘It’s the Same Old Song.’ And that is due, in no small part, the to the bass playing by the legendary James Jamerson. Play this one loud and and just let it soak in.

Monday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
Carolina continued its winning ways on Sunday, downing the Detroit Red Wings 2-1. The ‘Canes’s Dougie Hamilton scored a short-handed goal to seal the win. The ‘Canes now sit atop the Discover Central Division, with a 1-point lead over second-place Tampa.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.