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Taking a toll: Turnpike’s financial woes could waylay PennDOT

March 5, 2019

Local and state officials agree that the Pennsylvania Turnpike is crippled with debt, something that could soon affect the coffers of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

During legislative budget hearings last week, state lawmakers raised concerns about the turnpike’s ongoing funding issues and how they will affect PennDOT’s budget. Every year the commission is obligated to pay $450 million to PennDOT for transit projects after the state Legislature passed Act 44, which the commission affords by taking on debt and raising tolls.

During the hearings PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards said the turnpike has amassed more than $11 billion in debt, $6 billion of which is funds due to PennDOT. The commission lists its projected operating budget for 2018-19 at $1.25 billion.

“Half of their payments now are toward debt service,” said Richards, who is also the Turnpike Commission chairwomen.

“In a few years that percentage, I think, goes up to almost 70 percent of their budget.”

The commission has missed three payments to PennDOT, two in 2018 and one in 2019, with another payment due in April. Richards stated in her testimony that the turnpike would have to hike tolls every year until 2044 to pay off its debt.

“If we do not get the payments from the turnpike by this fiscal year, we will have to do operating cuts in certain areas,” she said in a Senate Appropriations Committee budget hearing Feb. 25. “Our Amtrak line, which we subsidize at around $16 million a year, could be reduced by half.”

In an email to the Daily American, PennDOT communications director Erin Waters-Trasatt said that without turnpike payments, distribution of funds for transportation projects will be dramatically lower in the new fiscal year.

“We will need the General Assembly’s help with addressing this issue, as we are assessing several capital improvements as well as studies and operational activities that will have to stop or slow down in the fiscal year beginning in July,” she said.

In January, the turnpike increased tolls by 6 percent. Someone paying cash to drive a passenger car across the entire 359-mile turnpike pays $58.30, up from $55 before the increase took place. The commission has continually raised rates over the last decade.

At the North Somerset Service Plaza, Red Lion resident Karl Hoffman said he uses the turnpike monthly to visit his family in the Pittsburgh area. Hoffman pays $27.70 one way for the 185.43 miles he has to travel on the road, which is not easy for someone who works in retail.

“It cost too much now,” he said. “What do they want me to do, hand over my wallet?”

State Sen. Pat Stefano, who is on the Senate’s Transportation Committee, said he constantly hears from residents about rising turnpike tolls.

“This is a point where people are going to have to sit down and make a plan,” he said. “We can’t continue this increased cost, (or) you are going to have diminished returns and you are going down a very dark rabbit hole.”

Stefano added that he’s concerned about the future of the turnpike, saying that some of the commission’s priorities are “off-kilter” based on its capital projects.

“One of the roles of government is to provide infrastructure, so we have to find a way to make this work, but I don’t know if the Turnpike Commission is doing the most efficient job,” he said.

PennDOT officials are also concerned about potential legal repercussions that may affect the turnpike. Two groups representing motorists and the trucking industry filed a federal lawsuit in March 2018 saying that turnpike tolls can be used only to maintain or expand the roadway that charges the tolls. The groups say PennDOT is violating the law by using money for non-turnpike projects, and are seeking a refund of $6 billion.

While PennDOT officials list Harrisburg, Williamsport and Scranton as the cities most affected by a negative outcome in the court case, Richards said potential projects in Pittsburgh and Johnstown would automatically stop. Richards said local projects such as the Johnstown Economic Development Transportation Investment Policy and Johnstown Inclined Plane could be affected by the lawsuit’s outcome.

“Almost a billion dollars will be in jeopardy if the litigation could not get resolved in a positive way for PennDOT,” she said. “If that money doesn’t get replaced, we are in a difficult situation.”

PennDOT officials said programs could lose between $1 billion and $2.5 billion without turnpike funds. The Somerset County Transportation System is listed as potentially losing $1.32 million without Act 44 funds. A full list with breakdowns for each project can be found at www.dailyamerican.com.

State Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar said in a statement that while the laws that created the turnpike’s debt were passed before he took office, he’s always voted against “funding mass transit on the backs of our motorists.”

“That’s one reason I voted against our crushing gas tax as much of that tax is a subsidy to mass transit, and our turnpike tolls also shouldn’t be going to fund a failed and bloated mass transit system,” he said.

State Rep. Mike Reese said he also has issues with how the state funds mass transit, and added these incidents may be the “pressure point” needed to consolidate turnpike and PennDOT operations.

“I firmly believe we should streamline operations,” he said. “We should be seeking out change.”

Stefano said a study was commissioned over a year ago on consolidation of the two agencies, but he said he has not seen the results of it yet.

Waters-Trasatt said if funding problems persist, it will be harder for PennDOT to fund projects like the completion of Route 219 from Meyersdale to the Maryland border. She added that alternative funding sources, such as Gov. Tom Wolf’s Restore Pennsylvania plan, which would rely on a severance tax on natural gas, could help make up those differences.

“This is especially important as we will need to redirect funds away from these roadways if we don’t have additional interstate investment, and simultaneously more traffic will move onto these secondary roadways if interstate conditions deteriorate, exacerbating the problem,” she said.