Lawmaker to introduce bill to abolish Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission
HARISBURG — A Clarion County lawmaker this week will introduce legislation to abolish the embattled Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission with the hope that her bill gains momentum because of a “pay to play” scandal at the toll road agency.
Other lawmakers have introduced similar bills, but with public outrage over corruption at the Turnpike Commission, concern with rising tolls and seemingly non-ending construction, the legislation Rep. Donna Oberlander intends to introduce “has the best chance now it's ever had,” said Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College.
“It looks like the end of the road for the Turnpike Commission,” DiSarro said.
Eliminating the agency would be one of the most significant legislative decisions in recent history, said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College. He remains skeptical that, despite momentum from the scandal, the General Assembly would want to take such a large step.
“Our legislature is not known for boldness or staking out new territory,” Madonna said.
A state grand jury last month outlined a culture of corruption enveloping the Turnpike Commission. Contractors who provided gifts to turnpike officials and made campaign donations to selected lawmakers and gubernatorial candidates tended to get inside information and won contracts through rigged bids, the grand jury contended. Eight people, including the former turnpike chairman and CEO, face criminal charges.
The Turnpike Commission long has been a patronage nest for politicians, but the grand jury report showed that evolved to a new level, Oberlander said.
“Given the corruption alleged by the grand jury, the timing couldn't be any better,” Oberlander said about her proposal.
As the Legislature considers transportation funding, Oberlander is pushing to improve efficiency at the turnpike.
In a memo to House colleagues, Oberlander said “the top-heavy Turnpike Commission employs one executive manager for every 60 miles of roadway versus one executive manager for every 5,800 miles of roadway with PennDOT.”
Overall, the turnpike employs 2,100 people to oversee 514 miles of highway. PennDOT has almost 12,000 employees responsible for about 41,000 miles of state road.
Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House GOP leaders, said the bill likely would get a vote as part of a Republican agenda to “reduce the size of government. The question is, why do we need two transportation departments? We don't.”
Lawmakers likely will hold a press conference on the bill on Wednesday, Miskin said.
Under the bill, all turnpike operations, including maintenance and construction, would become a Bureau of Toll Administration within PennDOT. The bill proposes a deputy secretary to oversee the bureau. The turnpike's $7.5 billion debt would transfer to the Treasury Department. PennDOT would use tolls to pay the debt, as occurs now, Oberlander said.
“While we haven't reviewed the representative's proposal, I can tell you that there'd be a number of logistical and practical issues to overcome before we would be able to consider any such proposal,” said PennDOT Deputy Press Secretary Erin Waters-Trasatt. She said PennDOT is “working more closely with the turnpike than we have before.”
Over the past two decades, the state Senate became the ultimate roadblock for any turnpike reform bill.
Former House Transportation Chairman Rick Geist, R-Altoona, called the Turnpike Commission the “playground of the Senate.”
The Senate's power over the agency stems from the confirmation process: four commissioners, appointed by the governor, require Senate confirmation.
Senate leaders of both parties who had their hands in turnpike affairs no longer hold office.
Senate Transportation Chairman John Rafferty, R-Chester County, on Tuesday is expected to make public a plan to fund highways, bridges and transit that would be larger than the $1.8 billion annual plan proposed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.