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Opinion: Pennsylvania Turnpike Becomes Campaign Battleground
Commentary on the multi-million dollar advertising campaign for control of the Pennsylvania Turnpike as it heats up.

Well-funded interest groups are waging a multi-million dollar political campaign over whether to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Those with a financial stake in the matter on both sides of a question are now employing techniques ordinarily reserved for the most hotly contested of congressional or presidential election contests.

On one side, Abertis Infraestructuras, a Spanish company, and Citigroup are willing to pay Pennsylvania officials $12.8 billion for the right to tax motorists using the turnpike for the next 75 years. On the other, the Pennsylvania Turnpike itself is looking to defend jobs tolling those same motorists and to raise a similar amount of money by adding tolls to the Interstate 80 freeway. The final arbiter in the decision will be the state legislature, as swayed by public opinion.

Abertis and Citigroup are intent on spending whatever it takes to bring public opinion to their side. The Pittsburgh Patriot-News reported yesterday that radio ads will combine with up to six million pieces of pro-lease direct-mail advertising to sway Pennsylvania voters. Powerful lobbyists have also been retained to wine and dine key lawmakers and a website set up giving a preview of the Pennsylvania Transportation Partners' ad campaign.

The Turnpike has been countering with its own "Straight Talk" website which provides detailed reports and summaries of the problems involved in a 75-year lease. The site also has material claiming that there would be many benefits from imposing tolls on the Interstate 80 freeway. Websites for both sides include features encouraging users to contact their local representatives.

Other interests have gotten into the act as well. Last month, the Commonwealth Foundation, a privately funded think tank, hired Churchill Strategies to create a slick and informative pro-lease advertising website that makes the Pennsylvania Transportation Partners effort look a bit thin in comparison. Among the most effective items is a set of expensively produced attack ads labeled PikeTV.

"Do you ever wonder what the Turnpike Commission does with all your toll money?" asked the host of the latest ad. "Get this, last year the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission paid high-priced lobbyists and PR firms hundreds of thousands of dollars to convince lawmakers that they should toll Interstate 80. Pretty bad considering that in some states, spending toll dollars for hired political guns would be illegal."

The ad went on to detail allegations of cronyism and corruption at the Turnpike. The irony is that the ad's own website is advocating the cause of a company spending future toll road earnings on the same style of political lobbying and public relations campaign. The ad describes the Turnpike's waste of taxpayer resources on lobbying and cronyism, but these allegations were uncovered by reporters using freedom of information laws to confirm the facts involved. Reporters would have no such access to information from a private company headquartered in a foreign country.

Advocates of entirely eliminating the dangerous and inefficient tolling infrastructure have no champion to bankroll their cause.

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