Stabilize Tolls On Turnpike Replace Skyrocketing Feeswith Other Revenue Sources
It’s rare when a public official truly speaks for just about everyone, but Gov. Tom Wolf achieved that Tuesday on KDKA Radio in Pittsburgh when he said that tolls are too high on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. “I think there’s bipartisan support for actually taking a look at that because, I think, we all recognize that’s unsustainable. People using the turnpike are paying too much. The turnpike really is turning business away,” Wolf said. Legislative malpractice There is no doubt that tolls are too high. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has raised them in each of 11 consecutive years to meet its obligations under Act 44 of 2007, a law that is a poster child for legislative incompetence. The state government, as ever, was hungry for road repair money back in 2007. Gov. Ed Rendell and lawmakers saw tolls as a means to produce it and they especially liked it because at least some of the revenue would come from out-of-state residents. They had different plans, however. Lawmakers rejected Rendell’s idea to lease the 544-mile turnpike to a private company for an up-front payment of $12 billion, which the company would recoup from tolls, and ignored his warning that the federal government would not authorize the Legislature’s preferred scheme of imposing tolls on Interstate 80. Federal regulators subsequently rejected I-80 tolls three times. Rendell and lawmakers then agreed on Act 44, which required the turnpike commission to borrow money, backed by toll revenue, and turn it over to PennDOT for road and bridge repairs and mass transit. And some of the money has been used for controversial nontransportation development projects. The commission has turned over more than $6 billion so far, and continues to raise tolls to meet the rising bill. The resulting toll rates are so onerous that the trucking industry on several occasions has asked the Legislature to enact fuel tax increases in lieu of toll rate increases. Now, a tractor-trailer entering the turnpike at Ohio runs up a $260 cash toll or $201 E-ZPass toll if it uses the turnpike all the way to New Jersey. Truckers, who paid more than $400 million in turnpike tolls in 2017, have sued in federal court arguing that federal law requires tolls to be used only for the benefit of the highway charging the tolls. Bipartisanship and revenue Wolf also might be right about the prospect of bipartisan support for change. The conservative Commonwealth Foundation, for example, long has condemned Act 44, particularly the use of turnpike toll revenue for mass transit. Fortunately, there are some other potential sources of revenue to relieve the pressure on the turnpike tolls, but realizing them would require many lawmakers to suddenly acquire political courage. For example, the state government now uses more than $500 million of PennDOT money to pay state police, instead of its intended transportation uses. That covers the costs imposed on state police by communities across the state that irresponsibly refuse to pay for their own police coverage and rely instead on state police. In doing so, they not only deny PennDOT of money it needs, but transfer their costs to other state taxpayers. But lawmakers who represent those areas would rather support that terrible governance than require their constituents to cover their own police costs. Likewise, state lottery proceeds provide millions of free bus rides and reduce commuter rail tickets to just $1 for older state residents. Lawmakers could produce scores of millions of dollars for mass transit by requiring those older riders to pay just a nominal bus fare, easing the need to transfer turnpike money to transit. Wolf did not propose any particular plan to stabilize and reduce turnpike tolls, but he should make doing so a top priority of his impending second term.