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Thornburgh: Let PennDOT run the Pennsylvania Turnpike

| Sunday, March 31, 2013, 11:28 p.m.
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Former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh

As Pennsylvania governor, Dick Thornburgh coordinated the state's response to a 1979 nuclear accident and helped revive a troubled economy. As a U.S. Attorney, he argued before the Supreme Court and fought the mob and white-collar criminals.

But the Republican from Pittsburgh could not turn around a Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission he said was mismanaged and heavily influenced by partisan politics.

“We were unable to get our appointees confirmed in the Senate, so we were never able to get into the driver's seat,” said Thornburgh, 80.

Thornburgh, now an attorney in Washington, said he thinks the recent corruption scandal involving charges against eight former turnpike officials and vendors should spur state leaders to scrap the commission and place PennDOT in charge of operating the toll highway.

“It should be a catalyst,” he said.

“There is no good argument nowadays to keep it. The turnpike commission is just an anachronism that is no longer necessary,” Thornburgh said, adding that its roots can be traced back to a $1 million constitutional debt limit that existed in Pennsylvania from 1874 to 1968.

The debt limit made it hard to finance major capital projects, such as the construction of highways and bridges. Establishing independent authorities and agencies, such as the Turnpike Commission in 1937, became a work-around.

Shortly after its inception, the commission borrowed $41 million to help finance construction of America's oldest superhighway.

Combining the turnpike with PennDOT would greatly reduce transportation costs by eliminating duplication of services, materials and equipment, Thornburgh said.

Thornburgh fought with Senate Democrats over control of the turnpike for more than six years after he took office in 1979. Back then, he called it “one of the most bitter, partisan disputes in the state.”

Senate Democrats held the chamber's majority and blocked Thornburgh's attempts to fill vacancies on the five-member commission.

Commissioner Egidio Cerilli of Hempfield resigned as a result of being convicted of extortion in 1976, and Thornburgh booted Commissioner Peter Camiel when he was found guilty of putting “ghost employees” on the Senate payroll, reports show. The Camiel conviction was overturned, and the Philadelphia Democratic boss returned to the commission.

Thornburgh and Senate Democrats compromised in 1985. Both agreed to temporarily expand the commission from five members to six, with the governor appointing two new members without Senate confirmation — though one of the appointees later would be recommended by Democratic leaders in the Senate and House. The governor also was allowed to pick the commission chairman.

In return, Thornburgh agreed to approve $4.5 billion in turnpike improvements and extensions.

PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch, appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett in January 2011, opposes making the turnpike part of PennDOT. As PennDOT chief, he sits on the Turnpike Commission.

“It could hurt the overall credit rating of the agency and the state,” Schoch said of the proposed consolidation.

“By keeping them separate, if there was an issue with (the turnpike's) credit, it would be placed directly on tolls and not affect the credit rating and bonding expense for the entire state,” Schoch said.

The turnpike's debt tripled in the past six years, from $2.6 billion to $8.3 billion. The toll road brings in more than $800 million a year in tolls, but annually spends about $330 million to operate and $400 million to repay debt.

The turnpike gives PennDOT $450 million each year as required by a 2007 state law for roads, bridges and transit. It borrows money and raises tolls annually to stay afloat.

PennDOT, on the other hand, has $1.4 billion in debt on about $7 billion in annual revenue.

Schoch said he favors sharing equipment and services whenever possible to reduce costs.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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