For years, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and others have lobbied the state Legislature to give counties more flexibility to raise revenue beyond property taxes and a few other options.
Now, as Fitzgerald prepares to leave office next January due to term limits, a bill introduced Tuesday would give seven counties a series of options to raise money for public transit projects. The bill from state Rep. Joe Hohenstein, D-Philadelphia, would empower counties to levy taxes for transit on income, alcohol, rental cars, personal property, real estate sales, an annual personal property levy on cars, and a local services tax of up to $3 a week on individuals whose income is above 200% of federal poverty guidelines.
Counties in two areas of the state with the largest transit systems could adopt the taxes, and use money from any or all of the levies to support existing transit operations or for new projects. Those counties are Allegheny and the area served by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority — Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lancaster, Montgomery and Philadelphia.
At a news conference in Harrisburg, Hohenstein said the ability to raise money locally is particularly important now with the availability of billions in federal stimulus funds that require local matches. The potential new taxes would have to be enacted by each county, and each county could adopt any, all or none of them.
The amount of money the taxes could generate varies depending on the rate each county would charge.
“The funding flexibility in the local revenue generation is essential to the survival of public transit, and public transit is essential to economic growth,” Hohenstein said.
The news conference included representatives from Transit for All PA!, advocates for people with disabilities and SEPTA. Hohenstein included a letter of support from 20 other organizations, such as the Clean Air Council and Amalgamated Transit Union.
Fitzgerald said one important aspect of the bill is that it wouldn’t allow the state to reduce its transit subsidy if local counties enact the new taxing power. He will support the legislation.
“It would be a local investment that we could decide to make,” he said. “If you wanted to add more things to the transit system, this could allow you to do that.
“This would be up to future executives and future county councils to decide.”
Laura Wiens, the executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, said the legislation is important but the agency hasn’t taken a position on which transportation levies it would support or which projects should be funded through them.
A number of projects in Pittsburgh Regional Transit’s long-range plans — extending the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway from Rankin to Turtle Creek, adding a North Hills wing to the light rail system and establishing a new corridor from the Strip District through Oakland to Hazelwood and Overbrook — could be candidates for dedicated funding.
“It’s certainly needed,” Wiens said of the local taxing flexibility. “It’s been known for a long time this is something counties want.
“It’s not just an issue here in Allegheny County but statewide.”
The bill was referred to the House Committee on Local Government.