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Lawmakers Seek To Eliminate Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission
State legislation would abolish the scandal-plagued Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

Donna Oberlander
State lawmakers upset at the corruption of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission are looking to hand control of the toll road over to the state Department of Transportation (PennDOT). Pennsylvania created the turnpike commission in 1940 to run what began as a 160-mile toll road. The route now stretches 546 miles, charging drivers $780 million per year. Despite the heavy cost, the toll road is rapidly losing money.

Operating expenses total $688 million, according to the latest financial statements, and interest payments on the commission's outstanding $8.6 billion debt adds another $368 million in costs. Factor in depreciation, and the toll road operated at a $1.4 billion deficit. On top of this, a state law known as Act 44 diverts $450 million in motorist tolls to PennDOT, which then spends at least $250 million of that amount on buses, trains and other forms of public transit.

The books looked so bad that Moody's Investor Service downgraded the turnpike's credit rating on April 10. In doing so, the ratings agency declared the turnpike's financial prospects were "negative."

"The downgrade also reflects the turnpike's continued underperformance of its traffic and revenues compared to the consultant's traffic and revenue forecasts and our view that the recently updated traffic and revenue forecast remains optimistic as lower traffic growth now requires higher toll rate increases to yield modestly lower revenues over the next ten years," the Moody's report explained. "We expect traffic forecasts to be revised downward again in the future."

On top of the financial bad news, eight individuals including top Turnpike employees and a former state senator were charged in a toll road bribery scandal last month.

"None of us were shocked to hear the report," state Representative Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery) said at a press conference unveiling legislation to abolish the turnpike commission. "The question is, who's is going to stand up and do something about it? The question is, how many punches in the face from the grand juries does the General Assembly have to take on agencies like this? ...Status quo must go. This tumor is beyond radiation... This organized crime must stop."

State Representative Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion County) authored House Bill 1197 which shutters the commission and hands responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the toll road to PennDOT. Her bill specifically protects union contracts, ensuring most of the 852 toll collectors, 722 maintenance works and 530 office employees will keep their jobs. The legislation minimizes patronage by requiring the PennDOT employee who takes over the toll road to be a civil engineer with at least ten years of experience. Oberlander argued it is redundant to have two large agencies dealing with roads.

"PennDOT currently maintains over 41,000 miles of highways, roads and bridges with far less administration per mile," Oberlander said.

In addition to a chief engineer and chief financial officer, the turnpike has a chief of public relations, a director of diversity and inclusion, a chief lobbyist and other positions for a total of eighteen division heads.

A copy of the bill is available in a 75k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File House Bill 1197 (Pennsylvania General Assembly, 4/16/2013)

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