Increase the gasoline tax? First, let's see a project list

February 24, 2004

In life and especially in politics, timing is everything. That's why a coalition of groups pushing for a state gasoline tax increase in Pennsylvania may be out of luck, at least until after the November elections.

Former Gov. Tom Ridge won a 3.5-cent increase in 1997, as well as a 50 percent increase in vehicle registration fees. But gasoline prices were dropping at the time.

Now The Associated Press reports that gasoline prices have gone up 10 percent since December. An increase that wouldn't be hard to take when prices are falling might spark anger from voters upset by rising costs.

Facing such odds, the coalition at least deserves points for trying to make the case that a measure that would be politically unpopular would actually be good for the state.


The organization of road builders, farm groups and labor unions may not be disinterested observers, but they have a point when they argue that good roads are essential to economic development.

But how much is really needed? Every penny of the tax brings in $63 million a year, which means the 8-cent increase sought by the coalition would yield $504 million. Some of that would be used as a match for available federal funds - if those funds aren't cut as some lawmakers fear they will be.

The 8-cent increase would bring in a big chunk of cash, about half the amount the state now spends on road construction each year.

That's a big increase at a time when the economy is still lumbering along, but the coalition may be asking for 8 cents and hoping to get half that much.

What we haven't heard yet is: What vital projects won't be done if this increase doesn't go through?

When we say "vital," we're talking about projects that make dangerous roads safer or that keep motorists from wasting fuel in gridlocked traffic.

The coalition should make up a list of those projects, complete with cost estimates, then add up the total.

That's the amount that should be sought, as opposed to seeking cash that may not be needed. Once it's in hand, ways to spend it will be found. Lawmakers need to start from the other end by listing what's needed, then seeking the cash required to get the job done.

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