By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania has two transportation agencies. One controls more than 40,000 miles of state roads and 25,000 bridges, and another maintains 545 miles of tolled highway.
The former has seven executives, one for every 5,857 miles of roadway; the latter nine executives, one for every 60 miles of roadway.
For a group of Republican lawmakers, this doesn’t add up, especially when one of those agencies was the subject of a 44-month long grand jury investigation over alleged bid-rigging.
Standing alongside a dozen other GOP lawmakers, Rep. Donna Oberlander, R-Clarion, introduced legislation Wednesday to abolish the “corruption-infested” Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and fold the route’s operation and tolling into the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
“I believe that PennDOT is uniquely qualified and more than capable of handling the additional 545 miles of turnpike roadway and bridges,” she said.
Oberlander said it’s redundant for taxpayers to foot two bills for the agencies, and the legislation would cut down on government bureaucracy.
House Bill 1197 would create a Bureau of Toll Administration within PennDOT to manage turnpike tolling. The state would honor all collective bargaining agreements with union employees, though the commission itself would be eliminated.
Oberlander said the biggest challenge is how to handle the financing, as the turnpike carries more than $8 billion in outstanding debt. She could not prognosticate on the effects of taking on that debt as it relates to the commonwealth’s own financing or bond rating. It will be part of the discussion, she said.
The bill would create a five-person commission in charge of determining how to pay, and eventually retire, the debt. Members would include the governor, the state treasurer, the state auditor general, the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tempore.
So far, Oberlander’s legislation has nearly three dozen co-sponsors.
Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, said the turnpike is “a tumor beyond radiation,” adding that it’s up to the General Assembly to make the grand jury reports things of the past.
“We call it corruption. Back home, it’s called organized crime,” Vereb said.
Vereb introduced a similar proposal in December 2009, which didn’t get far. But consolidation at that time would have resulted in anywhere from $300 million to $400 million in savings for the commonwealth, Vereb said, and present savings could be more.
He also said taxpayers are already responsible for the turnpike’s debt.
“Taxpayers and toll payers are going to end up paying the debt no matter what,” he said. “So why not, when you’re paying down the debt, know this is never going to happen again?”
Carl Defabo, spokesman for the turnpike commission, said the agency has no position on the proposal and is rehabbing its business practices because of the grand jury report.
“It’s a fact that the Turnpike began to improve business practices years before these accusations were brought to light,” DeFabo said in a statement, “and Turnpike CEO Mark Compton launched even more aggressive reforms in the wake of the investigation to improve accountability and operations.”
DeFabo also said PennDOT and the commission are working closer than ever. The “Mapping the Future” partnership already has the agencies sharing services, such as design standards, training initiatives and inspection services.
Contact Melissa Daniels at [email protected]