Lawmakers urged to fix Pennsylvania turnpike’s fiscal plight
HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania’s elected fiscal watchdog is urging state lawmakers to rescue a Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission that is deep in debt from payments it must make to the state, despite annual toll increases going back 11 straight years.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Thursday that the annual toll increases are driving toll-paying truckers and motorists away, but the extra toll revenue is not reducing the commission’s rising debt.
That debt is now $11.8 billion. About half of it is attributable to the more than $6 billion that the turnpike commission has sent to the state Department of Transportation under a 2007 state law designed to pump more money into Pennsylvania’s highways and public transit systems.
“The idea that motorists and truckers on Interstate 76 are going to be able to pay that entire debt back is literally delusional,” DePasquale said during a Capitol news conference. “It’s not reality. All of us have a better chance of replacing any of the Philadelphia 76ers starters than that happening.”
More than half of the turnpike commission’s annual revenue of $1.2 billion now goes to debt payments. The turnpike commission’s chief executive, Mark Compton, said the weight of its debt payments has not affected safety on the roadway, but it is forcing the commission to limit long-term improvements in favor of short-term improvements on its 552 miles (888 kilometers) of roadways.
In 2008, before the annual toll increases began, the most-common cash rate for passenger vehicles was 75 cents, according to the turnpike commission. Now, it is three times as much, or $2.30.
The turnpike commission’s condition is one of a couple costly transportation funding-related problems Pennsylvania is facing.
Budget makers are trying to wean a fast-rising state police budget off motorist fees and fuel taxes that, under the state constitution, are strictly for highway construction, repair and safety.
Those highway dollars now underwrite almost two-thirds of the state police’s budget, $770 million out of $1.3 billion, even after a 2017 report by a state legislative committee strongly suggested that more than $200 million a year in highway construction funds are being diverted unconstitutionally.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed in federal court last year by a truckers’ organization and several other plaintiffs is seeking to end the turnpike commission’s annual payments, saying it violates the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. It also is asking the court to bar the turnpike commission from using tolls to pay off debt related to the payments to PennDOT.
The annual payments are $450 million a year, and are scheduled to drop to $50 million in 2022.
Senate Transportation Committee Chair Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said this week that she will assemble working groups to tackle the issues.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has not proposed a plan to deal with it, and his transportation secretary, Leslie Richards, told lawmakers last month that it would be “catastrophic” to have to pay back the $6 billion to the turnpike commission.
Following the lawsuit, the turnpike commission suspended its payments to PennDOT, which says it is covering the gap for the time being with cash from reserve funds and transit agency capital programs.