Clean Transportation in PA: Big Questions for 2022 (Part 3)

Pennsylvania's transit systems are at a turning point and the state must act to support a more sustainable future.

A SEPTA train runs through Philadelphia
Credit: Henk Sijgers, CC BY-NC 2.0

This blog was co-authored with Will Bernstein, Climate Advisor to the City of Pittsburgh.

This is the third part of a three-part blog. Part 1 focuses on the Federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the funding that may be coming into Pennsylvania as well as opportunities for the Commonwealth to adopt regulations to help increase the number of electric vehicles (EVs) available to customers. Part 2 discusses a petition concerning EV rate design filed at the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and transportation legislation in the General Assembly. Here we discuss the need for the Pennsylvania legislature to commit to robust, stable transit funding.

Transportation accounts for nearly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in Pennsylvania, so to combat climate change we need to change how people and goods move through the state. Getting Pennsylvania drivers into electric vehicles is vital, but the challenge is too great to meet with electrification alone. To seriously reduce transportation emissions, Pennsylvania must also make it easier for people to drive less. One of the best ways to do this is with robust public transit, which reduces carbon emissions while simultaneously easing congestion, creating good jobs, and providing transportation for those with otherwise limited mobility options (such as children, older adults, people of color and immigrants, low-income individuals, and people with disabilities).

Pennsylvania residents take more than 400 million trips on public transit each year. The bulk of these trips occur in and around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but there are 72 other systems that provide critical transportation services to residents of every county in the state. People across Pennsylvania who cannot or chose not to drive rely on transit to live their lives.

Question 5: How will Pennsylvania fund public transportation?

Prior to the passage of Act 89 in 2013 Pennsylvania’s transit agencies were in a state of perennial crisis, with funding shortfalls that threatened a downward spiral of service cuts and ridership loss. Act 89 overhauled transportation funding in Pennsylvania and provided important relief from that immediate crisis by creating a stable source of funding for transit agencies.

That stability was not permanent, however. One of the core features of Act 89’s transit funding was an annual transfer of roughly $450 million from the PA Turnpike Authority to the Public Transportation Trust Fund (funded by increased tolls as well as substantial borrowing). But starting in FY 2022-23 the Turnpike’s obligation will fall to $50 million, with the lost revenue to be replaced with increased transfers from the sales tax on motor vehicles. This shift means that the Public Transportation Trust Fund will be supported primarily by the vehicle sales tax, a general fund revenue source that is much more subject to the annual budget negotiation process and fluctuations in the economy. Current tax revenue has allowed Governor Tom Wolf to maintain (and even slightly increase) funding for the Trust Fund, but this revenue is far from guaranteed in the future. This unpredictability will cause difficulties for transit agencies trying to make long-term investments in their systems.

Even if the state does consistently maintain current transit funding levels, there are still major shortfalls to contend with. The state’s transit systems have been chronically underfunded compared to their peers. In 2019, the Pennsylvania Transportation Advisory Committee identified a need for an additional $1.2 billion in annual transit funding in order to keep Pennsylvania’s transit systems operating smoothly and to expand them in line with economic development.

Reaching this number will require major changes to how transportation is funded. Governor Wolf’s bipartisan Transportation Revenue Options Commission has recommended filling the transportation funding gap by supplementing (and eventually replacing) the state gas tax with a mix of road user charges, highway tolling, fees, and additional vehicle/fuel taxes. The statewide Transit for All PA! coalition has called for meeting the transit funding gap with a mix of equitable broad-based taxes and transportation-specific revenue sources, as well as by giving local governments tools for raising supplemental revenue for transit. Meeting these goals will require bipartisan agreement in Harrisburg and care will need to be taken to ensure that these funding mechanisms do not unfairly burden Pennsylvania residents, but a sustainable solution can’t wait much longer.

Between falling fuel tax revenues and the end of dedicated Act 89 funding for transit, we are at a turning point for transportation in Pennsylvania. Without action, funding for critical transportation services and infrastructure will continue to shrink, harming Pennsylvania’s residents, economy, and environment. It could spell disaster, but it is also an opportunity for the state to commit to a future that is more sustainable, equitable, and prosperous. We call on the state to take bold action to give Pennsylvania residents the transit they deserve.

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