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Inquirer Editorial: Highway to hell: Debt and rising tolls are killing the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission

Like death and taxes, there are two guarantees when it comes to driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike: potholes and toll increases.

Like death and taxes, there are two guarantees when it comes to driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike: potholes and toll increases.

But despite nine years of annual toll hikes, the Turnpike Commission's finances have crumbled worse than the 360-mile road. In fact, the commission has amassed a debt level that is "potentially unsustainable," according to a recent audit by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

The audit found the commission's net position - assets minus liabilities - has ballooned from $1.76 billion in 2007 to a negative $4.11 billion in 2015. That's almost a $6 billion dollar swing to the red in just eight years.

In addition, the audit found the commission loses $20 million a year in unpaid tolls from motorists who drive through the EZ-Pass lane without an account and could not be tracked down for payment

So, if tolls keep going up why does the Turnpike Commission keep going deeper into debt?

The commission's financial woes stem from the General Assembly's passage of Act 44 in 2007, which was signed into law by Gov. Ed Rendell.

The legislation, which enabled the commission to increase tolls and issue billions of dollars in bonded debt, was designed to generate new revenues for public transit agencies and to fund road and bridge repairs.

A key funding source for Act 44 called for also putting tolls along Interstate 80. But the federal Department of Transportation rejected that plan in 2010.

Undeterred, the state pushed forward with Act 44. Initially, the Turnpike Commission was required to give PennDot $900 million a year. After the I-80 toll plan was rejected, however, the payment was slashed in 2011 to $450 million a year. The still hefty payment to PennDot is scheduled to be reduced to $50 million a year in 2023. But the reduction may come too late.

The commission is now laden with so much debt that $600 million, or 60 percent of its annual $980 million budget, goes just for the debt payments.

Even worse, there is no end in sight to the commission's financial problems. The state audit said that in order to meet the debt payments, the Turnpike Commission will have to raise tolls every year through 2044.

As it stands, the Turnpike Commission's financial troubles may make some pine for the good old days when the agency's only problems seemed to be corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement.

The commission's crooked ways go back so far they seemed to have been written into the bylaws.

In fact, the best argument for keeping the Turnpike Commission may be to make the rest of Harrisburg look like a home for good government.

But the commission's financial crisis also makes for a golden opportunity. Gov. Wolf and the legislature should come up with a more sustainable way to fund state transportation needs. The plan should include restructuring the Turnpike Commission's bloated debt.

More important, the plan should merge the Turnpike Commission with PennDot. This is an idea that has long been discussed, but entrenched politics have prevented it from happening. It's time to fix the finances and kill the commission.