HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said Wednesday that opposition to a new law that raises billions of dollars in higher fees and taxes to fund transportation needs has not surprised him, and has been countered by support from those who believe passage of the legislation was the right thing to do.
Lawmakers passed the major transportation bill two weeks ago to fix roads, rebuild bridges and help the state's mass transit systems. The new law will be phased in over five years and will raise gasoline taxes at the wholesale level plus levy a range of motorist fees to eventually generate more than $2.3 billion annually.
Schoch said he and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett spent a lot of time talking about alternatives.
"The governor and I have discussed this every possible way, how you might finance this," Schoch said. "If you ask anyone to pay more for anything — I don't care whether it's for transportation services or if your cable bill comes that they're increasing it by 20 percent — no one's ever happy about paying more for what they perceive to be the same service."
Corbett ruled out new taxes and motorist fee increases when he ran for office in 2010, but this year made the transportation bill a major priority. Schoch said the most common reaction he's encountered has been to congratulate him for doing something that will help the state's economy and improve safety for years to come.
"I didn't expect everyone to jump up and say, 'That's fantastic,' and have absolutely no negative reaction," Schoch told reporters in PennDOT offices in Harrisburg. "But I think what you're seeing more of is a tempered reaction that the cost of doing nothing was higher and that this was the right step to take. There's always going to be opponents, always."
He said talk of promising special projects to get the bill passed is "comical" because a decade's worth of needs has been laid out on the department's website, a list that lawmakers helped create.
He acknowledged that some money raised by the new law will be available on a discretionary basis, using a possible Shell plant in western Pennsylvania as an example of the type of need that can arise unexpectedly.
For the short term, he said, the focus will be on addressing structurally deficient bridges, cutting bottlenecks, and improving safety through pavement work and intersection upgrades. Some weight restrictions could be removed from bridges in the first few months of 2014, he said.
The law gives him the power to raise speed limits from 65 to 70 mph, and Schoch said decisions on some routes may be made as early as spring. He said the higher speeds will only be allowed on long stretches, not for short distances.
One element he would have liked to have seen included in the law was the full electronic conversion of toll collection on toll roads. Schoch said that provision may have made the legislation harder to pass, but the electronic upgrade remains a priority and he hopes to see it addressed later.