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Wrestling to control turnpike

The agency operating it should be abolished, and PennDot should get the job, a legislator says.

Whether the Pennsylvania Turnpike is leased or not, the agency that runs it should be abolished to eliminate inefficiency and political patronage, says a state legislator who wants to give control of toll roads to the state Department of Transportation.

The proposal by State Sen. Jane Orie (R., Allegheny) would put Pennsylvania on a path taken by Delaware, where the state transportation department operates the toll roads, and by New Jersey, where a single chief now heads all transportation agencies.

"We've got PennDot managing 40,000 miles of highway and the Turnpike Commission managing 500 miles of highway," said Orie, who introduced the bill last month with cosponsors Sens. Edwin Erickson (R., Delaware), Jane Earll (R., Erie), and Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne). "Why do we need two separate entities to do that?"

Previous attempts to abolish the Turnpike Commission have failed, and Orie acknowledged that the politically connected commission has many friends in Harrisburg.

"If it came to a vote, I believe it would pass," Orie said. She said the Turnpike Commission, which is fighting efforts to privatize the turnpike, gained a powerful ally when it hired lobbyist Michael Long, longtime aide to former Senate Republican leader Robert Jubilier. "People are afraid to step forward," she said. "And the governor has not taken a stand, and that's deafening."

Orie argues that the Turnpike Commission is overstaffed and top-heavy with highly paid administrators. She says it has outlived its purpose, having been created in 1937 to sell bonds to build the turnpike, pay them off, and then go out of business.

Turnpike Commission spokesman Bill Capone said the existing two-agency structure is better for the state and for motorists. He cited the turnpike's performance during the Valentine's Day storm, when thousands of motorists were stranded on interstate highways maintained by PennDot while the turnpike remained open.

"We're smaller, we're not part of a giant agency, so we're more nimble, more able to respond," Capone said. "If the issue is efficiency, I struggle to see how merging us with a much bigger, slower agency would be better."

The Turnpike Commission employs 2,279 people; PennDot employs 11,584. The turnpike had operating revenue of $612 million last year and operating expenses of $580 million; PennDot had a $5.9 billion budget.

The merger proposal comes as Gov. Rendell seeks to lease the turnpike to a private company to raise money for transportation projects around the state. He hopes to get $12 billion to $15 billion for the toll road, which he predicts would generate about $965 million annually for bridge and highway repairs and maintenance.

The idea has gone nowhere in the legislature, as lawmakers wait for information about the "expressions of interest" in the turnpike submitted to PennDot in December by 48 firms, including New York investment banks, Philadelphia law firms, construction giants, international developers, and a prominent think tank.

Rendell has kept the proposals secret, saying they contain proprietary information.

"I said in our last caucus that we ought to subpoena them," said Orie, the majority whip in the Senate. "If we don't have the information, we don't have an opportunity to have a fair hearing for the lease."

Other states with toll roads have developed various ways of managing them. Many, such as Ohio, New York, and Massachusetts, have independent toll road authorities, separate from the state departments of transportation. Others, such as Delaware, Florida and West Virginia, combine the functions within a single transportation department.

Two states, New Jersey and Maryland, have separate agencies, but with a single chief. New Jersey went to that model in March, when Gov. Corzine appointed Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri to chair the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the Atlantic City Expressway. Kolluri already was chairman of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which operates the turnpike and the Garden State Parkway, and chairman of NJ Transit, the statewide bus and passenger rail operation.

"We're trying to bring some sense of order to transportation," Kolluri said. "Transportation is the common denominator for our economic growth, and we need to make sure all the investments we make are geared to one unified strategy. We have a $3.7 billion investment each year, and you have to have it geared to a cogent policy or you're wasting money."

In Delaware, where the toll operation was merged with the state transportation department about 12 years ago, P.J. Wilkins, the toll operations administrator, said an advantage is the services that the transportation department provides for the toll roads.

"Not a lot of toll agencies are eager to lose their autonomy, but there are some pros," Wilkins said. "I see how nimble they are, but the [transportation department] has so many more resources: They have a planning division, a finance division, a transit division. We reach into that every day. They give us engineering help.

"We get some efficiencies, we think, by doing it within the [department]."

A paramount issue is money. In Pennsylvania and most other states with independent toll authorities, the money from tolls is dedicated to the operation and maintenance of the toll roads. In states where the agencies are merged, the money can be merged, too.

Advocates of single agencies praise the combined funding as a way to share toll-road wealth across the state. Proponents of separate agencies condemn it as a diversion of tolls from their proper use.

"The revenues can be used a lot more broadly, for transit and for untolled highways," Wilkins said.

Capone, the Pennsylvania Turnpike spokesman, said that, with a single agency, "there would be nothing to prevent" taking money raised for turnpike improvements "and using it for I-80 or some other road."

Washington state, which, like other states, is considering toll roads as a way to meet rising transportation costs, recently studied the various approaches. It found the trend to be for states to use existing "multipurpose transportation agencies," such as a transportation department, "alongside a new organization focused solely on tolling opportunities."

The study said states wanted to use existing technical resources to avoid duplication, and they wanted to have greater control from a centralized transportation agency, rather than an independent agency. But it noted that "one size does not fit all."

Toll-Road Operations

Pennsylvania . . . Independent authority

Delaware . . . Part of Department of Transportation

New Jersey . . . Separate from DOT, but same chairman

Maryland . . . Separate from DOT, but same chairman

Maine . . . Independent authority

New York . . . Independent authority

Illinois . . . Independent authority

Georgia . . . Independent authority

Massachusetts . . . Independent authority

Kansas . . . Independent authority

Oklahoma . . . Independent authority

West Virginia . . . Part of DOT

New Hampshire . . . Part of DOT

South Carolina . . . Part of DOT

Florida . . . Part of DOT, and local authorities

Colorado . . . Part of DOT, and local authorities

Virginia . . . DOT, and local and private authorities

California . . . DOT, and local and private authorities

Texas . . . DOT, and local and private authorities

Indiana . . . Private company

SOURCES: States' departments of transportation, toll operators