"Fueling Debate" Part I: Breaking Down PA's Gas Tax
HARRISBURG, Pa. (ErieNewsNow) - Pennsylvania is expected to generate over $3.5 billion dollars in gas tax revenue by the end of the current fiscal year.
But is the revenue going where it should?
The gas tax revenue makes up the majority of Pennsylvania's Motor License Fund, a fund that generates transportation revenue for road and bridge maintenance and construction.
Rising prices and a high gas tax are now fueling debate about how the state is spending its gas money.
Some turn to start their engine, others simply push. Some drive automatic, and others manual. One thing they all have in common: the pain they feel at the pump.
“Flabbergasted,” said Marsha, a driver who preferred not to share her last name. When asked how she feels when she sees the price per gallon, her reaction is similar to most other drivers.
“It's bad, it really is,” said motorist Brian Davidson.
Driving is becoming a taxing activity for travelers, leaving many feeling helpless as fuel prices surge.
“I can't do anything about it,” said Marsha.
In Pennsylvania, the price per gallon rose $0.60 just in the last month, with no signs of capping anytime soon.
“As of right now, there is no indicator that is going to stop increasing,” said Doni Lee Spiegel, Public Relations Manager for AAA Central Penn.
According to AAA, this week's average of $4.32 per gallon ranks Pennsylvania at the 14th highest fuel price in the country. However, the commonwealth ranks third in the U.S. for highest gas tax. Pennsylvania pockets $0.58 per gallon, with another $0.18 going to the federal gas tax, meaning you pay over $0.77 per gallon in taxes each time you fill the tank.
But where is that revenue going?
“Gas tax money is to go into the Motor License Fund and be used only for highways and bridges,” said Pennsylvania AAA Federation Executive Director Ted Leonard
The gas tax makes up nearly 80 percent of the Pennsylvania Motor License Fund and is a major funding source for PennDOT.
“We are so heavily reliant on that gas tax,” said PennDOT Acting Executive Deputy Secretary Melissa Batula.
Batula says the gas tax is like a user fee for roads and bridges.
“It was really looked at as those that use the system should pay for the system. The whole purpose of the fund was to have it reserved for those transportation purposes,” said Batula.
However, Leonard says revenue from the Motor License Fund has been siphoned elsewhere over the years, fueling debate about where and how it is spent.
“The gas tax over the years has had several legislative changes in not only the amount but the way that it's figured and levied,” said Leonard.
In the current fiscal year, the Motor License Fund is expected to bring in nearly $5 billion, but PennDOT will only receive $3.6 billion for roads and bridges.
“So that means with that pot, you know, it's trying to go many, many different places,” said Batula.
- $456 million in liquid fuels payment to Municipalities
- $28 million in liquid fuels revenue paid to counties,
- $40 million in grant funds to municipalities for traffic signals
- $30 million for the Highway Transfer program
- $91 million in grants for local and county bridges
However, the largest diversion of the Motor License Fund is the $673 million that goes to the Pennsylvania State Police.
“When you're taking money out of the Motor License Fund, then you're not able to do the projects and fill the potholes,” said Leonard.
Just a few years ago, the state police received nearly $800 million from the Motor License Fund. Leonard says the state police need that funding, but their portion of the Motor License Fund has grown faster than the fund itself.
“But it grew and grew and grew and grew until the Legislature finally stepped in and said, you know, we've got to limit this,” said Leonard.
With soaring prices at the pump, with crumbling infrastructure, and with an underfunded Department of Transportation, many are raising serious concerns with how Pennsylvania is spending its gas money.
“As far as it going into roads and bridges, I don't see it. I drive these roads every day and they're as rough as rough terrain,” said Davidson.
Like drivers, PennDOT is feeling the holes on the roads and in their pockets with a more than $8 billion annual funding gap.
“The real reality is we just don't have enough to do everything we need to do. So you're stuck kind of making very hard decisions with which ones go forward,” said Batula.
With 25,000 bridges and 14,000 miles of roadway to maintain, PennDOT is looking for directions and searching for alternative funding options.
“We have to resolve this, it really is a crisis in our funding,” said Batula.