By James Dodaro
State Auditor General Jack Wagner and a recent Inquirer report suggest that a 2007 law requiring the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to fund road and bridge repairs is bankrupting the agency. As a past vice chairman and longtime member of the commission, I agree that the obligations of the law, Act 44, are pushing the turnpike toward financial disaster. Combined with major cuts in federal highway funding, this has near-catastrophic implications for the condition and safety of Pennsylvania's roads and bridges.
Among other ominous predictions, Wagner has correctly noted that the turnpike is "drowning in debt" due to an unsustainable $450 million annual obligation to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The Turnpike Commission's own auditor reached a similar conclusion, noting, "There can be no assurance that the commission will be able to continue to issue debt on terms that are acceptable, or at all, to finance these obligations."
Robbing Peter to pay Paul has always been bad policy, and Act 44 is no exception. It's directly contributing to declining road and bridge conditions, jeopardizing the safety of the public, and diminishing the state's economic competitiveness.
Before Act 44, when its revenues were not being diverted to other entities, the turnpike was able to sustain itself with infrequent toll increases. Revenues generated through tolls or fees, whether by a highway or any other public authority, should never be diverted for other purposes. They should be used to maintain and improve the entities imposing the tolls or fees.
Pennsylvania needs a new, responsible approach to its transportation crisis. I propose a four-point plan:
Repeal Act 44 and eliminate the 3 percent annual increase in tolls used to subsidize PennDot projects. These projects are PennDot's responsibility, and relieving the Turnpike Commission of this obligation will allow it to reduce its ballooning debt and support its own improvement and expansion.
Apply for Federal Highway Administration approval of a plan to toll Pennsylvania's interstates (excluding local commuters), with a "lockbox" requirement that all toll revenues be used to maintain and improve the commonwealth's interstate network. This would answer the concerns behind the federal government's rejection of previous proposals to toll I-80, which included revenue diversion schemes similar to Act 44's.
Use existing state and federal gas-tax revenues to maintain and improve our non-interstate highways and bridges, as well as other transportation assets.
Return state funding for mass transit to previous levels and give urbanized areas the option of raising local, dedicated revenues for transit systems.
If Gov. Corbett and state legislators are to lead us on this issue, the public must accept that a sound and safe transportation network has real costs.