Turnpike faces never-ending toll hikes and debt

How is it that Pennsylvania’s biggest cash cow, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, raises tolls every year and still amasses a debt that threatens its existence?

Good question.

In most parts of the public economy, toll collection is the closest thing to government immortality — increasing rates as needed to maintain the status quo and support a patronage-laden workforce.

The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission is a case in point.

And yet the bridge commission seems a paragon of austerity and financial security compared to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

A few weeks ago Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale addressed the turnpike commission’s shaky financial situation, raising this specter: How many times can the turnpike raise tolls in successive years (now averaging 6% a year) before it prices itself out of its own captive market? Before people just avoid it?

“Right now, the cash price for a family driving across Pennsylvania is $56.50,” DePasquale said. “For truck drivers who use the Turnpike to get goods to the stores for us to buy, the cash price now is $183.50 one way.”

DePasquale said the Turnpike Commission is carrying a staggering $11.8 billion in debt, even though it has boosted tolls each year for more than a decade. He called on the Legislature to act.

He described the turnpike’s future as a “fragile balance” that faces several potential threats — resistance and avoidance from truckers and other drivers, along with uncontrollable factors such as gas price surges and economic downturns.

Here’s the kicker: Even though the turnpike commission is a bureaucracy in need of belt-tightening, the huge debt load isn’t really the commission’s doing.

In 2007, the state Legislature enacted, and Gov. Ed Rendell signed, Act 44 — a law mandating that the Turnpike Commission hand over $450 million a year to fund other items in the state budget, including mass transit systems.

This “remedy” came after the state’s failed attempt to place tolls on Interstate 80. Before then, there had been only five toll hikes since the turnpike’s opening in 1940.

The turnpike’s stability is also threatened by a lawsuit brought by commercial trucking groups, demanding that $6 billion in tolls diverted to non-turnpike needs be returned to the tollpayers.

If Act 44 were tossed by the courts, Pennsylvania’s transportation budgets would be gutted, even with two wholesale fuel tax hikes since 2012.

Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards says PennDOT couldn’t begin to repay $6 billion — not without “catastrophic” consequences to road, bridge and mass transit programs across the state.

So what’s Pennsylvania’s solution to its transportation Ponzi scheme?

The Legislature has milked the turnpike’s cash cow for too long.

A judge might conclude it’s time to sell the farm.

Painful as it may be, Pennsylvania lawmakers have to find a pay-as-you-go transportation funding vehicle, without foisting debt on a third party.

Let the turnpike pay down its debt without fleecing its users.

The Easton Express-Times



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