Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell Monday called for a special session of the legislature to begin Aug. 23 to address the state’s $472.5 million transportation funding gap.
The Democratic governor is asking lawmakers to reconvene next month, after the Senate Transportation Committee wraps up several public hearings on the topic. Rendell will testify Wednesday at the committee’s first hearing. He plans to detail road, bridge, and mass-transit projects that would not go forward without identifying sources of money to cover the shortfall for fiscal 2011, which began July 1.
The House Transportation Committee has already held its public hearings on the issue. Democrats control Pennsylvania’s lower chamber while Republicans have a majority in the Senate.
The governor is stepping away from an earlier proposal to issue bonds to help cover the fiscal 2011 funding gap. On May 4, during a speech before a special joint session of the legislature, Rendell suggested issuing debt to cover the shortfall, although he stressed at the time that borrowing to close the gap is a “shortsighted” plan.
Yesterday, Rendell said if the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission were to raise tolls to support a bond issue to generate $472.5 million it would actually cost $1 billion in debt service. He said he would not support such a plan. The PTC oversees the 530-mile turnpike, which runs east-west through southern Pennsylvania.
The commission “would have to increase tolls and do a bond,” Rendell said during a press conference. “I’m not about to spend $1 billion of taxpayers’ money for one year of funding.”
Pennsylvania must find a new source of funding for transportation after the Federal Highway Administration in April rejected the state’s request to implement tolls on Interstate 80. The 311-mile roadway runs through the center of the state and is parallel to the turnpike.
The federal decision opened up a funding problem for the state as it had anticipated $472.5 million of I-80 toll receipts and bond proceeds that the revenue stream could generate in fiscal 2011.
Of that total, $312.5 million is pegged for road and bridge improvements. The remaining $160 million would support other public transportation upgrades. Those capital projects are in danger of missing next summer’s construction schedule if lawmakers fail to find a funding source by the end of the year.
“These projects, particularly the bridge projects, can’t wait,” Rendell said.
The governor’s first choice for raising needed revenue is to place an excess-profits tax on oil companies, a move that could generate $750 million annually, he said. Such companies currently benefit from the Delaware loophole, which allows corporations to shelter profits from taxation through separate business reporting.
“My belief is that the ExxonMobils and the BPs and all the rest can afford to pay a whole lot more than they’re paying now,” Rendell said. “Because of the Delaware loophole, most of the oil companies — who sell 12 billion of gallons of gasoline a year in Pennsylvania — most of the oil companies pay very little in state taxes.”
There is little legislative support for the initiative.
The governor said he would also sign measures raising the state’s gas tax and vehicle registration and licensing fees, and heighten electronic surveillance to capture more uninsured drivers and reckless motorists. He stressed he prefers taxing oil companies rather than the gas tax and driver fee options.
Administration officials anticipate that raising the gas tax by 3.25 percentage points could generate $130 million in additional revenue. Raising registration and licensing fees would raise $340 million of revenue.
Rendell said he is still open to entering the turnpike into a long-term lease agreement with a private operator for an upfront payment. The governor’s efforts to pass such a plan through the legislature so far have been unsuccessful.