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Lowman S. Henry

Lowman S. Henry

Chairman & CEO
Lincoln Institute
of Public Opinion Research

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Town Hall Commentary

Turnpike Funding Taking Its Toll

by Lowman S. Henry
 

The only surprise is that it took so long.

Two national organizations representing truck drivers are suing the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission claiming the industry has been collectively over-charged by $6 billion. This is because tolls paid to drive on American’s first superhighway have gone not to the maintenance and operation of the turnpike, but rather to unrelated state roads and public transportation.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, Inc. and the National Motorists Association have brought to the forefront botched public policy for which both political parties are complicit and neither will step up to the plate and fix.

Although the truckers’ are suing the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, the commission is not responsible for the siphoning of toll dollars from the turnpike’s coffers. The blame lies squarely with former Governor Ed Rendell and the General Assembly. Act 44 of 2007 diverted $450 million per year in funding from the turnpike to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT).

The plan was for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to toll Interstate 80 which runs north of the turnpike on a parallel path. The only problem is federal law would not allow I-80 to be tolled. The state sought permission to toll the interstate from both Republican and Democrat administrations. Both denied the request.

Thus the turnpike commission was left holding the bag: they are required by law to make annual payments to PennDOT, but the revenue source to offset those payments never materialized. The result has been substantial annual toll hikes, which are expected to continue in coming years. This has placed a substantial financial burden on motorists, while depriving the turnpike of resources needed to continue upgrading aging infrastructure. This situation is at least partly responsible for the turnpike commission’s adding of over $5.6 billion in debt since the passage of Act 44.

There have been opportunities for the legislature to right this wrong. Most notably during the administration of former Governor Tom Corbett the General Assembly found the votes needed to impose what was in essence a 30-cent per gallon gas tax hike, but did not include any language to reform Act 44 and to relieve the turnpike commission of its $450 million per year requirement.

Since then, neither former Governor Corbett nor current Governor Tom Wolf have made any effort to address the situation, nor has the issue been anywhere on the radar screen of the legislature. All of the above seem to be quite content accepting higher and higher tolls with funds going to projects far afield from the turnpike itself.

With multiple governors and the legislature failing to take action the trucking industry has now turned to the courts. It is possible the initial suit could be enjoined by others to form a class action suit with the ultimate goal of securing damages in the form of a refund for the excessive tolls the turnpike has been forced to charge. In the short term, the litigants are asking for a stay of recent toll hikes while the court hears arguments in the case.

The truckers have a sound argument. They have been forced to pay for roadways and public transportation they do not use. Media reports add credibility to the suit pointing to a similar case in the state of New York wherein toll dollars were diverted to help fund a canal system. That suit was initially decided in the truckers’ favor, although the case is still on appeal.

Unfortunately, there is no organization to join in the suit on behalf of passenger car drivers who likewise have been charged ever-increasing toll rates to fund highways on which they are not travelling. However, any stay or judicially-mandated rollback in tolls would accrue to the benefit of all turnpike travelers.

If the suit is successful lawmakers and PennDOT will pay a hefty price. The trucking industry is initially asking for $6 billion in refunds, although that number could range substantially higher as others join in the suit. If PennDOT is forced to repay $6 billion to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to cover the cost of the refunds, legislators and the governor will have to find a way to fund the payments.

All of this could have been avoided if someone, somewhere along the road in the past ten years would have accepted responsibility for the situation and taken corrective action.

Nobody did.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.