Monroeville entrance of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
By Ed Blazina / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Some state officials say they are willing help the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission with its debt problem, but first they has to find another source for the $450 million the turnpike now annually contributes to public transit.
Chairman Sean Logan said Tuesday the commission is reviewing all construction projects and new hires because its annual debt payments of $600 million take up too much of its budget. One specific item the commission is requesting is elimination of the annual $450 million payment it makes to PennDOT for public transit, part of which it borrows every year.
“We want to help,” said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont. “I understand long term the turnpike commission has to make some changes with its debt. “But that money has had a significant positive effect on public transit. We need to find a way to replace it.”
Nolan Ritchie, executive director of the Senate Transportation Committee, said committee chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, is willing to sponsor legislation to eliminate the payment to PennDOT. Mr. Rafferty had sponsored legislation in 2013 for the PennDOT payment to end in 2021, but that bill lost out to one with a 2023 provision.
Either way, Mr. Ritchie said, he said doesn’t know where else PennDOT could get the money it needs.
“That is the other part of the argument,” Mr. Ritchie said. “I really believe the money that public transit would lose would be devastating.”
The committee is in “discussions” with the turnpike but hasn’t scheduled a hearing.
Mr. Logan said it was “good news” that state officials are willing to consider changing the payment to PennDOT.
“We certainly appreciate Sen. Rafferty’s willingness to alleviate the burden the turnpike has for providing money for transit.”
The state Legislature passed a law in 2007 that would have required the turnpike commission to pay PennDOT $800 million a year for general transportation purposes. The plan was for the commission to charge tolls on Interstate 80 and use that money to pay PennDOT.
But when federal officials refused to allow tolls on I-80, the Legislature cut the payments to $450 million and earmarked the money public transit until 2023, when the payment drops to $50 million a year.
Mr. Ritchie said the impact the PennDOT payments have had on turnpike finances is obvious. The commission’s debt in 2008 was $3.8 billion and now it is $11 billion and growing.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati issued a statement noting the law already calls for reducing the payment in 2023.
“I commend the Turnpike Commission for looking at ways to improve efficiencies and control their expenses,” he said. “We understand that the turnpike commission’s debt is difficult to sustain.”
Jeffrey Sheridan, a spokesman for Gov. tom Wolf, said the governor has not been involved in any discussion about the turnpike payment to PennDOT.
“That is not an idea we can consider in a vacuum or without seeing the legislation,” he said in a statement. “We, of course, would review any legislation, but eliminating that payment would create a $450 million hole for PennDOT.”
PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards is caught in the middle since she also sits on the five-member turnpike commission. Her office declined comment Thursday.
Mr. Dermody said the Legislature has to do something and he favors making another attempt to charge tolls on I-80 to provide money for PennDOT.
“We need to help,” he said. “Obviously, we need to figure out what to do [in 2023] anyway, so we should just start now.”
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