The Lead

Auditor General DePasquale warns of looming financial disaster for Pa. Turnpike

By: - March 22, 2019 1:38 pm

Shouldering nearly $12 billion in debt, the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s fiscal future has led to gloomy projections from the state Department of Transportation, transit advocates, and state lawmakers.

On Thursday, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale — who sounded the alarm about the highway system’s coffers in an earlier audit — joined the club.

“The Turnpike Commission, once viewed by some as a cash cow, has been milked to the brink of collapse,” DePasquale said in a statement this week following the release of a five-year audit of Pennsylvania’s toll highway agency.

In 2007, state lawmakers passed Act 44, which required the Turnpike Commission pay PennDOT hundreds of millions of dollars annually for public transit funding. The number was reduced to $450 million after the feds told Pennsylvania it couldn’t toll Interstate 80.

The provision was amended with Act 89 in 2013, lowering the obligation to $50 million annually beginning in 2022 through 2057.

As a member of the General Assembly in 2007, DePasquale voted in favor of Act 44 twice.

The commission has also been spending billions on widening existing highways, building new routes, and even dropping $2 million to research a hyperloop at the behest of the Pa. House.

READ MORE: Why Pennsylvania transportation funding could be in deep trouble

To meet its existing expenses and debt, the commission has raised tolls to pay for these legislative obligations. Driving the Turnpike end to end costs $58.30 with cash and $41.70 with an E-ZPass.

“The Turnpike simply cannot continue to raise tolls to cover the legally mandated payments to PennDOT,” DePasquale said in a statement. “Hiking tolls year after year while hoping that E-ZPass users won’t notice is not a sustainable revenue plan and it causes a financial hardship for motorists.”

Adding an extra layer of uncertainty? A lawsuit from state truckers claiming the public transit transfers are unconstitutional, which could force the payback of additional billions in tolls.

“We offer four recommendations to the [Turnpike Commission], including prioritizing only capital projects requiring immediate attention, ensuring that traffic projections are conservative and realistic, evaluating and scrutinizing sources of revenue and operating expenses, and evaluating ways to increase passenger car and commercial use of the Turnpike,” DePasquale wrote in the audit.

The auditor general also recommended the Legislature reconsider the payments and “consider drafting and enacting new legislation to closely focus on reasonable interim alternative revenue sources.”

The Turnpike Commission did not reply to a request for comment by press time, but CEO Mark Compton told WITF that about half the agency’s revenue go to debt payments each year.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.