HARRISBURG -- Making the Pennsylvania Turnpike part of the state Department of Transportation is a wrong-headed idea that would worsen traveling conditions for thousands of motorists who use the cross-state system of highways, tunnels and bridges each day.
That's what turnpike boss Joseph Brimmeier said yesterday, as he angrily rejected a proposal by state Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, to eliminate the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.
She wants to make the turnpike a sub-agency of PennDOT, which would maintain the 500 miles of turnpike roadway in addition to the 40,000 miles of roads it's already responsible for.
Mr. Brimmeier, executive director of the commission, brought up one of PennDOT's still-sensitive issues -- what he called "the Valentine's Day Massacre storm" of Feb. 14-15. The severe snow and ice storm didn't shut down the turnpike but did leave hundreds of motorists stuck for hours on PennDOT-maintained interstates 78, 80 and 81.
"It cost me more than $5 million in lost toll revenues that day," he said, because the turnpike suspended its tolls as a way of luring motorists away from the ice- and vehicle-clogged interstates. He also sent turnpike road-clearing crews to help PennDOT crews reopen the three busy roads.
And as far as one state agency taking over another, Mr. Brimmeier claimed that Ms. Orie has it backward -- it should be the turnpike commission taking over PennDOT.
"It would be a step in the wrong direction to put the turnpike under PennDOT," he said.
One reason Ms. Orie said the turnpike commission should be abolished is because it is "patronage laden," meaning it hires a lot of friends and family members of state politicians. She noted an article in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer that said Robert F. Brady, the 34-year-old son of U.S. Rep. Bob Brady who is running for mayor of Philadelphia, is an assistant director of turnpike operations at a salary of $86,000.
Ms. Orie's allegation of patronage upset Mr. Brimmeier, who called Ms. Orie "a hypocrite." He claimed that on "at least 20 occasions," the senator herself has sent letters asking him to hire a prospective summer employee, usually a toll collector or maintenance worker.
"She can't have it both ways," he said. "She can't accuse us of having patronage jobs but then turn around and ask me to hire someone. She's talking out of both sides of her mouth."
This accusation, in turn, incensed Ms. Orie, who denied ever pressuring turnpike commission officials for patronage jobs.
She said, "I am appalled he is saying these things. It's outrageous. He's trying to twist what I have done."
The most she's ever done, she said, was to send "eight or 10" letters to turnpike commission officials. She described them as "standard boiler-plate letters" on behalf of college students in her district seeking summer jobs as turnpike toll collectors. She said she has never lobbied or pressured turnpike officials for jobs for "relatives, friends or personal acquaintances."
Sending the letters for college students, which she said she stopped doing in 2003, was "constituent service," she said.
Ms. Orie said she wants the Senate Transportation Committee to hold a hearing on her proposal, Senate Bill 676, which would do away with the 67-year-old turnpike commission and create a new agency within PennDOT called the Bureau of Toll Road and Bridge Administration.
She said "it's ridiculous" to have two separate agencies overseeing roads.
As for Mr. Brimmeier's criticism of the Valentine's Day ice storm, she said, PennDOT has already admitted doing a poor job in that case and has outlined ways to improve.
PennDOT Secretary Allen Biehler, who is one of the five turnpike commissioners, and his boss, Gov. Ed Rendell, said PennDOT is responsible for many more miles of highway than the turnpike commission is, and PennDOT should be judged on its overall performance over the years, not just on one snafu.
The battle between Mr. Brimmeier and Ms. Orie is part of a larger issue -- how to generate more money to repair ailing roads and bridges. Ms. Orie thinks several hundred thousand dollars could be saved by doing away with the turnpike commissioners' jobs and some "duplicative" administrative jobs between the turnpike and PennDOT.
Mr. Rendell has another idea: Leasing the turnpike to a private operator for at least $10 billion and investing that money to earn at least $965 million a year for 30 years, money that would be spent on roads and bridges.
The turnpike commission has proposed an alternate plan: Raising money by making Interstate 80 a toll road, selling bonds, increasing existing turnpike tolls and imposing a new $1 "congestion fee" on motorists exiting the turnpike at Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Scranton.
It will be up to the Legislature to decide how to raise the additional $965 million per year that is needed for road and bridge maintenance.
Mr. Rendell has said he wants the Legislature to pass such a bill by mid-June. Holding a hearing on the Orie bill to put the turnpike under PennDOT will be part of the Legislature's deliberations.
Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at email@example.com or 1-717-787-4254.