The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has, for the past eleven years, rung in the New Year by bestowing a toll increase on turnpike travelers. As 2019 dawns yet another 6% increase in fare rates will take effect.
In a recent radio interview Governor Tom Wolf admitted that these annual toll hikes are “driving business away” from Pennsylvania. Not only are the exorbitant fares harming business, but the governor correctly pointed out that: “People using the turnpike are paying too much.”
There is no end in sight to the annual toll hikes: the increases are expected to continue every year through 2044. That will cause commercial vehicles to find alternative routes and make “America’s first superhighway” unaffordable for the average motorist.
Folks might be inclined to blame the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for mismanagement. But, the fault actually lies with the General Assembly and former Governor Ed Rendell. Back in 2007 lawmakers passed Act 44 which mandated the transfer of $450 million per year in funding from the turnpike to the state’s Department of Transportation.
In other words turnpike travelers are paying for roads they might never drive on, and we’ll have more on that in a few minutes. The plan at the time was for the turnpike commission to toll Interstate 80, the other major east-west highway running across Penn’s Woods. That toll revenue was to subsidize the annual fund transfers to PennDOT.
But the plan went quickly awry. The Bush Administration refused to allow the tolling because I-80 had been built using federal funds. A subsequent appeal to the Obama Administration also resulted in the tolling scheme being denied. Thus was the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission left with a legally mandated fund transfer for which there was no corresponding revenue stream.
Since the turnpike’s only controllable source of revenue is from tolls, the commission was left with no choice but to continue raising fares to pay PennDOT. At the same time, the aging highway system has required significant capital expenditures to both maintain and upgrade the roadway. Those are the factors which triggered the annual toll hikes.
The problem has been obvious for years, but no subsequent governor or session of the legislature has been willing to address it. This is largely because repeal of Act 44 would then require lawmakers to find another $450 million revenue stream for PennDOT or – horrors – cut spending to match otherwise available revenue.
Potentially adding fuel to the fire is a $6 billion lawsuit filed last spring by the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, Inc. and the National Motorists Association asking for a refund of that portion of tolls charged to motorists that was diverted to PennDOT. The basis of their suit is that their members were charged for maintaining roadways upon which they have never driven. A similar case in the state of New York involving toll dollars diverted to fund a canal system was won by the plaintiffs, giving credibility to the Pennsylvania case.
If that suit is successful the impact on both the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and the Department of Transportation will be financially devastating. The transportation agencies would be faced with a $6 billion bill (perhaps even more by the time the suit is adjudicated), and the loss of future toll revenue.
Ultimately the issue will end up back in the laps of lawmakers. Since Act 44 was enacted in 2007, subsequent governors and sessions of the General Assembly have ignored the rising tolls, the looming fiscal disaster, and the economic impact on commerce in the state. A chance to fix the problem arose when former Governor Tom Corbett championed what was in effect a 30-cent per gallon increase in state gasoline taxes. But that revenue was simply larded on top of the turnpike transfer.
As a new session of the General Assembly gets underway in Harrisburg rising turnpike tolls remains a problem waiting to be resolved. Pennsylvania already ranks near the bottom of national rankings of state economic competitiveness. Our geographic location and transportation infrastructure is one of our stronger qualities, but that positive is being turned in a negative by rising tolls.
Having pointed out the problem, the question is: will Governor Wolf offer a solution when he delivers his budget address in February? And, will this new session of the General Assembly do what its predecessor legislatures failed to do and take action to repeal Act 44 thus allowing the turnpike commission to end or at least slow down the rate of fare increases.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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