Gov. Rendell's proposal to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private operator for $12.8 billion was introduced in the state House yesterday by a powerful Philadelphia Democrat and a rural Republican.
Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, cosponsored the turnpike bill, HB 2593, with Rep. Steven Cappelli (R., Lycoming). Evans' support may give Rendell reason for increased optimism that the plan will eventually win legislative approval.
But the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Joseph Markosek (D., Allegheny), an opponent of the lease plan, said he believed there was not enough support in Harrisburg to pass the measure.
"It raised my eyebrows a little," Markosek said of Evans' support, "but I don't care who the sponsors are, you still have to have the votes."
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are said to be preparing a nonbinding resolution to forbid a lease of the turnpike.
The lease plan calls for the state to give a Spanish-U.S. consortium the right to operate the turnpike for 75 years, in return for a $12.8 billion payment to the state. The money would be invested in the State Employees' Retirement System, with the interest to be used for highway, bridge and transit projects around the state.
The Rendell administration has estimated that the payment from Abertis Infraestructuras, of Barcelona, and Citi Infrastructure Investors, of New York, would produce about $1.1 billion a year for transportation projects. That's based on a 12 percent return, which is the 20-year average for SERS investments.
Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo called the support of Evans "both welcome and encouraging."
The turnpike legislation is not likely to come to a vote until fall, at the earliest, legislators said yesterday.
"I feel our backs are against the wall," Evans said yesterday. "We don't really have many options" for raising money to repair crumbling bridges and highways and supporting mass transit. He said it was not politically feasible to consider higher gas taxes as prices at the pumps rise past $4 a gallon.
"We should look very seriously at this idea of leasing the turnpike," Evans said. "We should have the fundamental discussion about which will benefit the taxpayers the most, a lease or Act 44."
Act 44 is the transportation-funding law approved last year. It calls for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to use higher tolls on the turnpike and new tolls on Interstate 80 to provide about $965 million a year over the next decade for highways, bridges and mass transit.
But tolls on I-80 require federal approval, which appears uncertain. And the prospect of tolls on I-80 has angered many residents and businesses in northern Pennsylvania, who say tolls would cripple the regional economy.