House Republicans propose abolishing Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission

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HARRISBURG -- Citing a renewed focus on transportation issues, the need for smaller government and years of turnpike corruption, a group of House Republicans has proposed abolishing the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, ceding all operations, maintenance, construction and other responsibilities to the state's Department of Transportation.

The legislation, put forth Wednesday by Rep. Donna Oberlander, R-Clarion, comes in the wake of last month's grand jury presentment that resulted in charges against eight individuals, including former Sen. Robert Mellow and former turnpike CEO Joseph Brimmeier, who resigned from the Port Authority board when he learned he was being charged.

A bond rating agency also downgraded its rating of some of the Turnpike Commission's outstanding bonds earlier this month, citing the agency's growing debt and projections of "flat to minimal traffic growth."

The idea of abolishing the Turnpike Commission has been brought up before, but supporters say the recent scandal makes it more urgent than ever before. The idea does appear to have the support of some House Republican leaders as well.

"This tumor is beyond radiation," said Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, referring to the commission.

He spoke at a news conference Wednesday morning with other House Republicans, flanked by a poster board featuring headlines regarding allegations of turnpike corruption.

Under the proposal by Ms. Oberlander, the Commonwealth would assume the debt of the outstanding bonds of the Turnpike Commission and will use turnpike tolls for repayment of that debt.

Further, PennDOT would honor collective bargaining agreements with turnpike employees. It would appoint a committee -- of the state treasurer, auditor general, governor, speaker of the House and president pro tem -- to deal with retiring the commission's debt.

The official within PennDOT who would oversee the turnpike would be required to have a degree in civil engineering and at least 10 years of experience designing and building highways, to minimize patronage, she said.

Ms. Oberlander said she had not discussed her proposal with PennDOT officials, but is fully confident the agency could handle the turnpike duties. PennDOT is run by seven executives and manages more than 41,000 miles of roadway, she said; in comparison, the Turnpike Commission is run by nine executives and is in charge of 545 miles of roadway.

A PennDOT spokeswoman was noncommittal when asked about the proposal.

"We'd have a lot of logistical and practical issues to overcome before we could consider a plan like that," said Erin Waters-Trasatt. She noted that PennDOT does work closely with the turnpike on some issues. For instance, a collaboration on shared design standards for a maintenance facility saved the turnpike $12 million.

Similarly, the Turnpike Commission has not taken a position on the proposal, according to a statement from the agency, which noted it has already launched reforms to improve accountability.

"While the turnpike and PennDOT operate independently, the agencies are working closer today than at any point in our history," said a statement from spokesman Carl DeFebo.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Corbett's office said the administration is reviewing Ms. Oberlander's proposal.

A merger between the two entities would likely be easier said than done, according to Peter Samuel, editor of industry publication

Some states, such as Massachusetts, have abolished turnpike authorities and merged them into a state transportation agency.

Oftentimes, however, turnpike authorities must continue to exist -- at least on paper -- due to outstanding debt.

"Quite often, it's very hard to get rid of a turnpike because there's all these bonds that have been issued," Mr. Samuel stated.

The existence of such difficult-to-disentangle legal and financial agreements means in some cases the turnpike authority continues to exist as a legal entity but comes under day-to-day control of the state DOT.

That would likely be the case if Ms. Oberlander's bill were to become law; the Turnpike Commission would legally remain in existence until its debt was retired, she said.

Turnpikes were initially set up as separate entities for that reason, Mr. Samuel said -- to be able to borrow against toll revenues without staking the full faith and credit of the state.

"The state can say, look, we're not assuming the risk of this not working out," he said.

Most larger states with toll roads, such as Illinois, New York and Ohio, still maintain turnpike authorities separate from the state department of transportation, Mr. Samuel said. While the two entities can be run as part of the same organization, they aren't as natural partners as one might think.

"Toll roads are basically a business and DOTs are not," Mr. Samuel said. "Turnpikes have to attract willing customers and it is a very different thing from running a DOT. ... I just think they are very different animals."

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Kate Giammarise: First Published April 17, 2013 2:45 PM


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