By Tom Barnes
HARRISBURG -- The unpopularity of mass transit among some rural, conservative Republican legislators was re-emphasized today at a House Republican Policy Committee hearing on what needs to be done to find money to improve state roads, bridges and transit.
Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford, said bus fares in his area are $2 per ride and he thought that cost could be increased, perhaps to $4 a ride, as a way of reducing the $800 million in state funds provided annually for mass transit. That way, he said, more state money could be directed to fixing the 7,000 miles of ailing roads and 5,000 substandard bridges that PennDOT Secretary Allen Biehler said exist in the state.
Mr. Roae repeated criticism often heard from GOP lawmakers about sizeable annual salary increases that go to drivers for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority in Philadelphia and the now-rescinded policy at the Allegheny County Port Authority that allowed some employees to retire after only 25 years.
Mr. Biehler said there are 38 mass transit agencies in the state, not just the two big ones in Pittsburgh and Philly. The third largest one serves State College, he said.
Mr. Roae also asked why administrative money couldn’t be saved by merging PennDOT and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, an idea that has been considered in the past but which the Turnpike Commission, with its pull in the Legislature, has been able to stop.
Mr. Roae also noted that the now-rejected plan to put tolls on Interstate 80 included having almost all the toll barriers operate electronically, through EZ-Pass, or through video cameras that would take pictures of a car’s license plate as it went under a toll barrier and then mail the driver a bill.
He wondered if the Pennsylvania Turnpike might switch from having hundreds of human toll-takers to such a video/electronic system -- a move that would face strong opposition from the toll-takers union. Turnpike officials said the Legislature would have to pass a bill to allow the turnpike to add video cameras before such a major switch could take place.
The GOP panel held its hearing in preparation for a special session that Gov. Ed Rendell will call on transportation problems, likely to start May 4.
The rejection of the tolls on I-80 has reduced annual transportation funds from $922 million a year (starting July 1) toonly $450 million, meaning the Legislature must find ways to raise an additional $472 million a year, or else cut costs by that amount.
Rejection of the I-80 tolls is having a harsh effect on the Port Authority, which will lose $26 million a year in expected funds, and on SEPTA, which will lose over $100 million.
Ideas for raising transportation funds include: higher fares or service cuts for transit systems; raising the 31-cent-per-gallon state gasoline tax; raising the $36 fee for registering vehicles; instituting "public-private partnerships,’’ where a private firm would build a road or bridge and then charge a toll for using it; leasing the turnpike to a private operator; seeking federal permission to toll some interstates that are not now tolled; lifting a cap on how much state sales tax revenue can be used annually for transportation; and other ideas.