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Regional

Turnpike debt puts projects at risk

| Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

Plans to extend the Southern Beltway and Mon-Fayette Expressway could be in jeopardy if the economy or the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission's financial situation deteriorates.

Prompted, in part, by spiraling debt and ballooning tolls, commissioners Tuesday identified six major improvement proposals that officials will look to suspend if “future financial or economic conditions dictate” a construction spending reduction, officials said in a news release.

The proposed Mon-Fayette Expressway extension — it would connect I-376 near Monroeville with Route 51 in Jefferson Hills and would cost an estimated $853.4 million over 10 years — and a planned 13-mile extension of the Southern Beltway that would connect Route 22 to Interstate 79 at an estimated 10-year cost of $859.3 million, join four eastern Pennsylvania projects on the possible deferment list.

A 2014-16 performance audit released by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale in September pointed to growing debt and “unrealistic” revenue projections as sources of potential financial trouble for the turnpike.

Turnpike Chairman Sean Logan of Monroeville at the time said commissioners agreed the mounting debt in particular was concerning. They called for staff members to review capital spending plans.

Turnpike commissioners earlier this year reduced their 10-year spending plan by 14 percent to $5.77 billion, and Logan in a statement released Wednesday said a further deferment analysis found no benefit to immediate deeper capital spending cuts.

“Such a measure would have little or no impact on upcoming toll increases or on the debt needed to meet our funding obligations,” Logan said. “Furthermore, doing so would result in charging travelers more while they, in essence, get less value for their toll dollar and possibly even reduced safety. That just doesn't add up.”

The turnpike commission has borrowed more than $5 billion since a 2007 transportation law required the agency to turn over $450 million annually to PennDOT through 2022.

Its debt is $11.5 billion, an agency spokesman said in September, while more than half of an estimated $1 billion in toll revenues for fiscal year 2017 is allocated for debt service.

In Wednesday's statement, Logan called for lawmakers to create some sort of relief from the annual PennDOT payments.

Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said commissioners monitor the agency's finances monthly and will look for a downturn in turnpike traffic and toll revenues or an uptick in operating costs as they determine wether they need to defer the six projects.

Michael Walton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5627 or mwalton@tribweb.com.

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