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Auditor General — Stricter oversight for Turnpike perks

By   /   December 10, 2012  /   No Comments

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — The lax oversight of tolling cards given to employees and contractors of the Pennsylvania Turnpike should get tighter before tolls increase next month, Auditor General Jack Wagner says.

Wagner said Monday the turnpike needs to keep better records of who receives free tolling perks and how they are used. His comments came as part of a special performance audit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. The turnpike allows employees, contractors, state police and some other state officials to avoid paying tolls, yet it fails to distinguish whether those perks are used for business purposes or for pleasure.

FREE RIDES: Wagner said the bigger issue was not the $7 million in lost revenue, it was the lax accountability at the PA Turnpike Commission.

In all, the freebies cost the turnpike about $7.7 million in revenue over a four-year period the audit examines.

Wagner said it’s not about the amount of money; rather, it’s about the lack over oversight and transparency within the commission.

“There has to be far greater oversight of free travel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” he said.

Meanwhile, tolls on everyone not lucky enough to be employed by the commission — or work as a consultant or contractor for it — are scheduled to increase again next month.

In a statement, Carl DeFebo, spokesman for the Turnpike Commission, said the commission had only received a copy of the auditor’s report Monday and “not yet had an opportunity to completely digest it.”

“We are currently reviewing it, and we look forward to responding in a timely manner,” he wrote in an email.

Wagner said the audit revealed free tolls are also granted to about 900 members of the state police — including many whose duties do not include patrolling the turnpike — and about 30 state employees in the governor’s office and state Department of Transportation.

He said it makes sense to allow employees to use the road for free while they are working, but personal free use should be eliminated before tolls are increased again.

The free tolls are costing the Turnpike vital revenue at a time when it’s more than $7 billion in debt and has raised tolls in five consecutive years to continue meeting funding obligations put in place by the state Legislature in 2007.

The commission has continually downplayed concern about the increasing debt of the turnpike.

The turnpike draws no distinction between personal travel and travel for work purposes, said Helen Weigel, director of the Bureau of Special Performance Audits, a part of the auditor general’s office.

Many of the 7,500 employees and contractors who get the free toll perks use the E-Z Pass electronic tolling devices. But the turnpike assigns the devices as personal accounts, so record of their use is not available under the state’s right-to-know law.

AG: Auditor General Jack Wagner

Most state agencies and departments — if they give out such electronic transponders — file the accounts under the agency or department’s name, making them part of the public record, Wagner said.

“Maybe close to all of it is appropriately utilized, but the simple fact is they can’t tell you that.” Wagner said. “They can’t prove that, and in today’s modern world they should be able to do that.”

DeFebo did not respond to questions about why the turnpike does not distinguish between personal and work-related use of free tolling.

Wagner said the full audit will be released before he leaves office in January.

If the scheduled toll increase for 2013 takes place in January, the Pennsylvania Turnpike will become the costliest road in the nation for motorists on a per-mile basis.

Under Act 44, the Turnpike is required to make $450 million payments annually to the state, which the Department of Transportation uses to pay for highway and mass transit projects statewide.

Critics of the law say motorists on the turnpike are effectively subsidizing drivers who use other roads or those who choose to take mass transit, while supporters argue that it is in turnpike’s best interest to keep those other systems running efficiently.

Either one, one thing is clear — The turnpike’s costs have increased.

In front of a joint House and Senate hearing in September, Turnpike officials said the level of debt was sustainable and the finances of the commission were sound, as long as they could continue to hike tolls on motorists to cover the debt-service payments.

Since Act 44’s passage, tolls have increased 31 percent for drivers using the electronic EZ-Pass system and 44 percent for drivers paying cash.

And every time the tolls go up, the Turnpike’s own employees get a sweeter and sweeter deal.

Contact Eric Boehm at [email protected] and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter

— Edited by John Trump at [email protected]