Turnpike tumor: Fold the toll road operation into PennDOT

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It's time to abolish the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

Simply replacing a few figureheads or instituting new policies that can easily be ignored won't fix what ails the commission, an independent authority that manages Pennsylvania's toll roads. Tweaking the commission has been tried before when allegations of corruption have surfaced, and the charges leveled last month against eight individuals associated with the commission are not remarkably different from those of previous scandals.

More drastic change is warranted.

Hiring friends and relatives of influential officials and skewing its contract bidding process to favor those willing to make generous contributions to political campaigns long have been the lifeblood of the commission. This time, the wrongdoing should be the nail in its coffin.

The commission operates separately from the state Department of Transportation, which manages all state-owned roads except those that charge tolls. The commission was established in 1937 so it could borrow against future toll revenue, rather than risking the credit-worthiness of the state. Once its initial indebtedness was retired, the commission was supposed to go away.

That never happened. Today, the authority's debt stands at $7.5 billion. It has borrowed heavily in recent years to rebuild parts of the turnpike and to meet its obligation to pay $450 million per year to PennDOT.

A Republican lawmaker from Clarion County, Rep. Donna Oberlander, last week proposed eliminating the commission and transferring its operations, maintenance, construction and other responsibilities to PennDOT. Her idea is not new. Three years ago, Montgomery County Republican Mike Vereb proposed the same thing, and two former governors, Democrat Ed Rendell and Republican Dick Thornburgh, have suggested it, too.

It can be done. In 2009, Massachusetts abolished its turnpike commission and Connecticut, Delaware and Florida have eliminated toll agencies similar to Pennsylvania's.

Still to be worked out is how the turnpike's debt can be assumed and how to ensure that the annual contribution to PennDOT would fund transportation needs beyond the turnpike, particularly $250 million a year that goes toward mass transit. But those should not be insurmountable challenges.

Other pluses are that the head of the turnpike section within PennDOT could be required to have professional credentials, and the state may improve efficiency with combined operations.

The principal benefit, though, as Mr. Vereb put it, will be excising the tumor, once and for all, that is the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

opinion_editorials


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