Turn­pike fund­ing tak­ing its toll

Low­man Henry

Northern Berks Patriot Item - - OPINION - Low­man S. Henry Colum­nist

The only sur­prise is that it took so long.

Two na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions rep­re­sent­ing truck driv­ers are su­ing the Penn­syl­va­nia Turn­pike Com­mis­sion claim­ing the in­dus­try has been col­lec­tively over-charged by $6 bil­lion. This is be­cause tolls paid to drive on Amer­i­can’s first su­per­high­way have gone not to the main­te­nance and op­er­a­tion of the turn­pike, but to un­re­lated state roads and public trans­porta­tion.

The Owner-Op­er­a­tor In­de­pen­dent Driv­ers Association Inc. and the Na­tional Mo­torists Association have brought to the fore­front botched public pol­icy for which both po­lit­i­cal par­ties are com­plicit and nei­ther will step up to the plate and fix.

Al­though the truck­ers’ are su­ing the Penn­syl­va­nia Turn­pike Com­mis­sion, the com­mis­sion is not re­spon­si­ble for the si­phon­ing of toll dol­lars from the turn­pike’s cof­fers. The blame lies squarely with for­mer Gov. Ed Ren­dell and the Gen­eral Assem­bly. Act 44 of 2007 di­verted $450 mil­lion per year in fund­ing from the turn­pike to the Penn­syl­va­nia Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion (Pen­nDOT).

The plan was for the Penn­syl­va­nia Turn­pike Com­mis­sion to toll In­ter­state 80 which runs north of the turn­pike on a par­al­lel path. The only prob­lem is fed­eral law would not al­low I-80 to be tolled. The state sought per­mis­sion to toll the in­ter­state from both Repub­li­can and Demo­crat ad­min­is­tra­tions. Both de­nied the re­quest.

Thus the turn­pike com­mis­sion was left hold­ing the bag: they are re­quired by law to make an­nual pay­ments to Pen­nDOT, but the rev­enue source to off­set those pay­ments never ma­te­ri­al­ized. The re­sult has been sub­stan­tial an­nual toll hikes, which are ex­pected to con­tinue in coming years. This has placed a sub­stan­tial fi­nan­cial bur­den on mo­torists, while de­priv­ing the turn­pike of re­sources needed to con­tinue up­grad­ing ag­ing in­fra­struc­ture. This sit­u­a­tion is at least partly re­spon­si­ble for the turn­pike com­mis­sion’s adding of over $5.6 bil­lion in debt since the pas­sage of Act 44.

There have been op­por­tu­ni­ties for the leg­is­la­ture to right this wrong. Most no­tably dur­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion of for­mer Gov. Tom Cor­bett the Gen­eral Assem­bly found the votes needed to im­pose what was in essence a 30cent per gal­lon gas tax hike, but did not in­clude any lan­guage to re­form Act 44 and to re­lieve the turn­pike com­mis­sion of its $450 mil­lion per year re­quire­ment.

Since then, nei­ther for­mer Gov. Cor­bett nor cur­rent Gov. Tom Wolf have made any ef­fort to ad­dress the sit­u­a­tion, nor has the is­sue been any­where on the radar screen of the leg­is­la­ture. All of the above seem con­tent ac­cept­ing higher and higher tolls with funds go­ing to projects far afield from the turn­pike it­self.

With mul­ti­ple gov­er­nors and the leg­is­la­ture fail­ing to take ac­tion the truck­ing in­dus­try has now turned to the courts. It is pos­si­ble the ini­tial suit could be en­joined by oth­ers to form a class ac­tion suit with the ul­ti­mate goal of se­cur­ing dam­ages in the form of a re­fund for the ex­ces­sive tolls the turn­pike has been forced to charge. In the short term, the lit­i­gants are ask­ing for a stay of re­cent toll hikes while the court hears ar­gu­ments in the case.

The truck­ers have a sound ar­gu­ment. They have been forced to pay for road­ways and public trans­porta­tion they do not use. Me­dia re­ports add cred­i­bil­ity to the suit point­ing to a sim­i­lar case in the state of New York wherein toll dol­lars were di­verted to help fund a canal sys­tem. That suit was ini­tially de­cided in the truck­ers’ fa­vor, al­though the case is still on ap­peal.

Un­for­tu­nately, there is no or­ga­ni­za­tion to join in the suit on be­half of pas­sen­ger car driv­ers who like­wise have been charged ever-in­creas­ing toll rates to fund high­ways on which they are not trav­el­ling. If the suit is suc­cess­ful law­mak­ers and Pen­nDOT will pay a hefty price. The truck­ing in­dus­try is ini­tially ask­ing for $6 bil­lion in re­funds, al­though that num­ber could range sub­stan­tially higher as oth­ers join in the suit. If Pen­nDOT is forced to repay $6 bil­lion to the Penn­syl­va­nia Turn­pike Com­mis­sion to cover the cost of the re­funds, leg­is­la­tors and the gover­nor will have to find a way to fund the pay­ments. All of this could have been avoided if some­one, some­where along the road in the past 10 years would have ac­cepted re­spon­si­bil­ity for the sit­u­a­tion and taken cor­rec­tive ac­tion.

No­body did.

Low­man S. Henry is Chair­man & CEO of the Lin­coln In­sti­tute of Public Opin­ion Re­search.

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