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Turnpike Commission pushes alternatives to privatization

| Wednesday, March 21, 2007

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) -- Big-city surcharges on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the introduction of tolls along Interstate 80 are among the steps the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission advocates as alternatives to the potential leasing of the turnpike to a private operator.

The commission, which outlined its plan to the state Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday, contends that it is in a stronger position than private companies to cash in on the value of the 537-mile turnpike to raise money for improvements to the rest of the state's highway system.

Highlights of the commission's proposal:

--Borrow $4 billion over 10 years through tax-exempt special revenue bonds issued by the commission to generate an average $400 million a year to jump-start work on highways and bridges maintained by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Debt service would be paid out of the Motor License Fund, which includes revenue from the state gasoline tax and driver license and registration fees.

--Collect tolls on Interstate 80 starting in 2011. Tolls are already charged on the highway from Chicago to the Pennsylvania border, and Pennsylvania tolls could raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

--Impose surcharges of as much as $1 on vehicles exiting the turnpike in the Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre areas. The fee would raise more than $150 million a year for a proposed "regional mobility fund" that would help finance mass transit systems.

Timothy J. Carson, the commission's vice chairman, warned that any private operator would demand the right to impose "very aggressive" toll increases as part of any long-term turnpike lease. He said existing public agencies should be fully explored as an alternative means of coping with the soaring cost of transportation projects.

"There's no free lunch here," Carson said in an interview. "It's just a question of who's going to help pay for what is done."

Gov. Ed Rendell is traveling across the state this week to tout his transportation initiative, which includes a proposed tax on oil company profits that would produce an estimated $760 million a year for cash-strapped public-transit agencies. Also included is the possible long-term leasing of the turnpike, which he said would generate as much as $965 million a year.

When the governor solicited comments on the turnpike lease in December, officials said his office received dozens of responses from Wall Street and from companies that already operate highways, bridges and tollbooths in the United States and Europe.

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