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Friday, April 23, 2010

The Turnpike's Losing Battle

The Philadelphia Inquirer
Pennsylvania toll-road officials pushed a failed plan to save themselves. Now what?

The state transportation funding plan known as Act 44 suffered a huge blow last week, when the federal government again declined to authorize the Interstate 80 tolls the act depends on.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission helped create Act 44 for one reason: to kill Gov. Rendell's proposal to lease the turnpike to a private operator. A lease of the turnpike would have eliminated the Turnpike Commission (or merged it into the state Department of Transportation) and thereby closed a playground of mismanagement, patronage, and corruption.

In recent months, former turnpike chairman Mitchell Rubin has pleaded guilty to obstructing a federal investigation of an alleged no-show state contract, and former vice chairman Timothy Carson stepped down amid revelations that he had been involved in two drunken-driving accidents in official vehicles.

Turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier, meanwhile, was either asleep at the switch or turning a blind eye to these abuses of power by his colleagues. The Turnpike Commission has reportedly been under investigation by the state attorney general as well as the FBI.

Act 44, in essence, was a shell game designed to borrow billions against the turnpike and place a high-risk bet that the federal government would turn I-80 over to the Turnpike Commission. The commission not only helped craft the legislation; it also lobbied for it by assuring legislators that the I-80 tolling plan was sound.

Two very different federal administrations - Bush's and Obama's - have now looked at the tolling application and rejected it. There appears to be some debate as to why, but perhaps no prudent policymaker wants his or her legacy to be giving an interstate highway to the Turnpike Commission, which is known throughout the transportation community as a corrupt and ineffective manager of the existing toll-road system.

To fight the lease, turnpike representatives suggested that it was actually a sale (despite the fact that the commonwealth would have retained title to the road), that turnpike employees would be fired (even though all union contracts were required to be honored under the terms of the lease), that the tolls would shoot up (even though the lease capped increases), that the legislature would have no control (although it would have had greater control and accountability under the terms of the lease), and that, if the United States went to war with Spain while a Spanish firm was running the turnpike, the commonwealth would lose control of the road (even though the state had already lost control of the rogue turnpike agency). One law enforcement official even announced that the turnpike could not be used for emergencies under the lease.

In total, turnpike officials spent millions of toll dollars lobbying lawmakers to endorse a high-risk and now failed effort to toll I-80 - a scheme that almost everyone knew had no chance of succeeding.

This was all part of an obsolete organization's bizarre, self-serving attempt to cling to power.

After months of debate, the clock ran out on the lease proposal and $12.8 billion that would have been handed over at its signing. And these funds for transportation would have come to the commonwealth debt-free, unlike the Act 44 funds.

Also gone were $5.5 billion in capital improvements guaranteed under the agreement, as well as at least $3.3 billion in taxes to be paid by the new turnpike operators.

This is what the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission fought against: money and jobs for the people of Pennsylvania. And what did it deliver in return, besides more than $2 billion in debt?

Employees were laid off during the holidays. Tolls shot up, with no caps or fixed schedule for future increases. And the commission went back to business as usual, except for the occasional investigation by federal and state law enforcement officials.

Voters should stop and think about what has happened here. The Turnpike Commission is still clinging to power. Which elected officials will stand up and promise to end its history of corruption and ineptitude?

It's time to stop thinking about the big-spending executives running the turnpike and start thinking about the hardworking men and women who are paying taxes and tolls in the state. It's time to eliminate the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and look at innovative ways to attract investment and improve the infrastructure of the commonwealth so that Pennsylvania can compete in the global economy.

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