Pennsylvania lawmakers just approved a plan to hike wholesale gas taxes, generating $2.3 billion in additional yearly transportation funding. Governing spoke with Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch about how the legislation was passed and what the state will do with the money. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why did Pennsylvania allow the problem to fester for so long?
The last time the state did anything significant on transportation funding was 1997. That's the last time registration fees or license fees or gas tax rates were changed. We've been underinvesting for decades. Meanwhile, we've got an old system in Pennsylvania. We have 25,000 bridges, and their average age is 51 years. I don't know that I want to say it was a crisis, but it got to the point that you realized if you didn't do something now, it's not going away and it's not getting better.
Why did the revenue plan finally gain traction?
The Senate moved on it last spring, but the House was where it was stuck. I'll give credit to House Speaker Sam Smith and Democratic Leader Frank Dermody. I approached both of them. The House had not really engaged in negotiating the bill, and we said we needed that to happen. I think you saw rank-and-file members start to get interested. The governor and I were both aggressive this fall in pointing out the consequences of no action from a public safety standpoint and an economic standpoint.
How'd you make the case for this, since tax hikes aren't popular?
I said there's a cost if you take action and a cost of inaction. I said the [Department of Transportation] is no different than a utility company. We charge for access to a system and for using it. If a water company has to rebuild lines to get service to you, you'll have to pay your share. We're no different. Just like your car and just like your home, you have to maintain roads and eventually replace them.
I talked about the consequences of inaction and said if we don't do anything about this, I'll have to start weight-restricting bridges. I said, "What you're telling me is we're not going to fund it, so start shutting it down."
Even if you're a fiscal conservative, even if you believe we shouldn't put more money into the system, nobody's suggesting to me we should take 5,000 miles of road and get rid of it. I said we collectively own it. Would you quit changing the oil in your car? Would you take your family on a driving vacation if you knew you had old tires? Of course you wouldn't. Yet that's what you're asking me to do.
The chambers of commerce and user groups -- like the agriculture industry, AARP, emergency responders -- they made a lot of noise on this, saying it's important to quality of life. And companies are seeing the condition of this infrastructure as they decide whether to relocate or stay here.
Will you have to ask for more money again?
We have a federal mandate saying we'll have a 40 percent increase in fuel efficiency. I don't think you can say we won't have to deal with it. I think long term, the nation needs to come to terms with the fact that we need to go to mileage-based fee if we're going to be a user-fee system.
Does this boost morale in the department?
It's a much better set of problems to be dealing with. We've all been frustrated with the fact that we haven't been able to do our jobs. Now the team at PennDOT is excited about this opportunity.
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