PA Turnpike Commission ‘on the path to bankruptcy,’ auditor general says
The Pennsylvania Turnpike is headed down the “road to ruin,” state officials warn.
Turnpike Commission CEO Mark Compton stood stony-faced Thursday next to Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, said the cross-state toll road is “on the path to bankruptcy” absent legislative action.
It’s not corruption or mismanagement, but rather Act 44 of 2007 that requires the commission to pay PennDOT $450 million a year for mass transit that has left the nation’s first superhighway deeply in debt despite annual toll increases. Those hikes have driven the toll for a car ride across the turnpike to $56.50 and resulted in a decline in turnpike traffic as drivers sought out less-costly alternatives, DePasquale said at the Harrisburg press conference where he released his third audit of the roadway.
Last year, the Tribune-Review found that tolls from commercial traffic that made up 44.55 percent of turnpike toll revenue in 2009 had fallen to 42.71 percent in 2017.
DePasquale warned that a pending federal court case filed by truckers who claim diverting tolls to PennDOT is a violation of interstate commerce laws exacerbates what is already a serious threat to the turnpike.
Should the truckers prevail and the court rule Act 44 a violation of federal law, the results could be catastrophic for both the state and the Turnpike Commission, he warned.
There’s little question, DePasquale said, that Act 44 has been the impetus for 11 consecutive years of toll increases.
“Before Act 44, there were only five toll hikes in the 64 years. Now it happens every year, with no end in sight,” he said.
Forced to come up with cash for the state as well as road repairs and operating costs, the commission turned to Wall Street and took on $11.8 billion in debt — an amount higher than the state government carries, DePasquale said.
He commended the commission for following the recommendations from his last audit that it pursue toll evaders who breeze through the gates without paying. But he said there is simply no way the agency can continue to operate under current laws.
Compton reiterated DePasquale’s findings, noting that the commission had already skipped three scheduled payments to PennDOT because bond lawyers would not give them a letter saying their financial situation was “all clear.”
“We stand before you because we need help. We can’t stop this on our own,” Compton said.
He commended Senate Transportation Committee Chair Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, for agreeing to address the issue but stressed that quick action is necessary.
“It’s scary,” Ward said. “If the truckers win that case, we could be on the hook for half a billion (dollars). We have to address this no matter how the case ends. We’ve started a working committee. We meet next week. I totally understand the importance of mass transit, but we have to find another way to fund it.”
DePasquale, who was in the state House in 2007 and voted in favor of Act 44, said at the time lawmakers thought it would be a temporary fix and that the state would get permission to toll Interstate 80.
“Once the feds rejected (tolling Interstate 80), it wasn’t a viable project,” DePasquale said, stressing that the legislature needs to find new revenue streams to fund mass transit and relieve the Turnpike Commission of the burden it carries.
He said even those who don’t use the turnpike are paying the price in terms of the dangers from additional traffic diverted to roads not built to carry it and higher costs for goods that must travel on the turnpike.
“Today, truckers pay $183.50 one-way for a trip across the state,” he said. “In less than 20 years, they will be paying over $400 one way.”
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .