By Dave Lemery | Watchdog.org
The scale of the debt weighing down the Pennsylvania Turnpike is staggering, with $11.8 billion in obligations already on the books and hundreds of millions more being added every year.
The way that affects everyday Pennsylvanians is in ever-increasing costs to drive the highway that spans the width of the state. Since Act 44 was passed in 2007, requiring the Turnpike Commission to divert $450 million to other state entities, the tolls have increased every year in a futile attempt to keep up with the ballooning debt. But in the 64 years before Act 44 passed, there were just five toll hikes – less than once a decade.
At a news conference this week, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and Turnpike Commission CEO Mark Compton talked about the urgent need for the state to intervene to keep the Turnpike solvent.
“Right now, the cash price for a family driving across Pennsylvania is $56.50,” DePasquale said. “For truck drivers who use the Turnpike to get goods to the stores for us to buy, the cash price now is $183.50 one way.”
As if the status quo wasn’t worrisome enough, there’s also the looming threat of a lawsuit by truck drivers seeking the return of $6 billion in tolls collected over the years and diverted to mass transit projects under the terms of Act 44.
DePasquale argued that waiting to see if the lawsuit results in Act 44 being thrown out is not an option and that lawmakers need to act soon. He noted that the toll hikes are leading to decreased use of the Turnpike, eating into the expected revenue increases and diverting more traffic onto side roads not designed to handle so much traffic.
“For those that think, ‘Well, I don’t drive the Turnpike, why should I care about this? I don’t pay that?’ News flash. Those truckers that are driving on that, they’re hauling fruit, they’re hauling food,” DePasquale said. “They’re hauling goods and services that you’re buying in Pennsylvania. Yes, you are paying that, because that is being passed along to the consumers.”
Compton emphasized that his agency was doing everything in its power to comply with an audit released by DePasquale’s office, going after those who fail to pay tolls and looking for other opportunities to cut costs. But he echoed the auditor general’s plea that lawmakers step up to at least stem the flow of red ink onto the Turnpike’s ledgers.
“Our revenues right now are about $1.2 billion,” Compton said. “Our debt service on that number is over $600 million. Half of the money we receive from our customers goes to pay the debt service. So think about that for second, and think about the way in which you run your own household.”