Corbett signs $2.3 billion Pa. transportation bill

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SPRING MILLS, Pa. (AP) – Gov. Tom Corbett signed a bill Monday that will pump billions of dollars into improvements to Pennsylvania’s highways, bridges and mass-transit systems, a major achievement that could energize Corbett’s 2014 re-election campaign.

Dozens of state and local officials looked on as the Republican signed the legislation in shivering temperatures at a ceremony in the parking lot of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Spring Mills along busy Route 322 near State College. Corbett was flying to similar events later in the day in the Philadelphia suburbs and Pittsburgh.

“There is barely a spot in Pennsylvania … that will not see an improvement because of this legislation,” Corbett said.

Corbett praised lawmakers who approved the bill in bipartisan votes in both houses last week, contrasting the bill’s enactment to the partisan gridlock in Congress that prompted a 16-day partial shutdown of the national government in October.

“Pennsylvania is a state that puts progress ahead of party,” he said. “The men and women who stood for this bill understood that compromise is not surrender, but rather a path to success.”

Corbett played down the increases in gas taxes and motorist fees that will be phased in over five years to generate at least $2.3 billion a year – an increase of about 40 percent from the $5.3 billion that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is scheduled to spend this year on highways, bridges and public transit.

Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch, who was traveling with the governor Monday, said the combined increases, once they are fully in effect, amount to about $2.50 a week for a motorist who travels 12,000 miles a year. That assumes the proposed increase in the Oil Company Franchise Tax on wholesale gasoline is entirely passed on consumers, he said.

The first fuel tax increase under the bill takes effect Jan. 1, according to PennDOT. The tax is imposed on the sale of fuel to gas station owners.

The governor said the accelerated schedule of transportation projects will bolster the state’s economy and enhance public safety.

In August, PennDOT announced new or increased weight restrictions on about 1,000 state and local bridges to enhance public safety and extend the life of the spans, citing uncertainty over transportation funding. Nearly 4,500 out of 25,000 state-owned bridges are deemed to be structurally deficient, or in need of repair, more than any other state.

Corbett advocated a major increase in transportation funding, including an increase in the wholesale fuel tax, in his February budget address. The bill’s passage is a distinct feather in his cap as his re-election campaign gears up.

His other top legislative priorities – the privatization of state liquor and wine sales and an overhaul of the major state pension funds – stalled and independent polls show his job-approval ratings have been stubbornly low for months. Eight Democrats have already lined up for their party’s nomination to challenge Corbett next year.

It was a friendly crowd that greeted Corbett in Spring Mills. A handful of people interviewed at random said they were glad to see a major infusion of money to spur transportation projects, although one disliked the higher taxes.

“Tax increases ain’t never good,” said Gary R. Smith, a senior vice commander of the state VFW.

Corbett vowed not to raise taxes, including motorist fees, during his campaign for the governorship. But he has said he does not agree that the transportation bill broke those promises and insists there was no way to predict how much of the increase would be passed along to consumers.

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