6/21/2013Pennsylvania Auditor Blasts Toll Road Law
Audit report shows Pennsylvania law that uses toll revenue to build mass transit projects has caused unsustainable debt.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike's debt is unsustainable thanks to the state law that allowed the road to implement massive toll hikes, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale concluded. DePasquale released his findings Tuesday during testimony before the state House Transportation Committee.
"We developed this special report to call attention to the unforeseen impact that Act 44 of 2007 is having not only on the Turnpike, but on motorists and businesses across the state," DePasquale said. "As auditor general, I wanted to know what happens to the Turnpike toll rates motorists pay and what happens to the Turnpike debt if we do nothing to fix Act 44."
Before Act 44, tolls were raised just five times in 64 years. Since the law took effect, motorists using the cross-state route have been hit with an 84 percent increase in tolls that will continue increasing up to 5 percent year-after-yea. The increases add up quickly.
"At the more conservative estimate, it will cost nearly $150 to cross the state on the Turnpike by the time Act 44 expires in 2057 -- that's a 576 percent increase from 2007," DePasquale said. "Tolls at that level will put a major financial strain on families and businesses. What is most likely to happen is that the outrageous tolls will force a lot of people to use side roads that cannot handle the additional traffic."
Act 44 was conceived as a bargain -- the Turnpike could hike tolls in return for diverting $450 million each year in motorist tolls to the state department of transportation (PennDOT), at least $250 million of which would be spent on projects for the benefit of non-drivers. The idea was to expand the Turnpike's revenue stream by imposing tolls on Interstate 80. That deal fell through, as did a plan to lease the Turnpike to a Spanish company for 75 years in return for a $12.8 billion cash payment that could be used for immediate budgetary needs. Topping off the Turnpike's woes, the road's top officials were indicted for corruption in March.
So far, the Turnpike has been making its payments to PennDOT by borrowing money. DePasquale estimates it will need to borrow another $11.4 billion to fulfill its obligations, but with debt service payments reaching $1 billion annually by 2054, the Turnpike is not likely to find lenders willing to take the risk of default.
"Based on our research and analysis, the Turnpike cannot sustain the level of debt Act 44 requires and, toll rates cannot be allowed to become cost prohibitive for motorists and businesses," DePasquale said.
The auditor called on the legislature to phase out Act 44's Turnpike provisions.
"Paying $150 to use the Turnpike is a far cry from the original plan that would have eliminated tolls on the road after the original construction debt was satisfied," DePasquale said. "But, since the mid-1980s we, like many states, rely on tolling authorities to help finance major infrastructure improvements across the state and fund public transit systems."
A copy of the audit report is available in a 150k PDF file at the source link below.