Like PennDOT, the Pennsylvania Turnpike is yet another government agency that is experiencing a worsening financial situation. The Turnpike Commission has been attributing their financial woes to declining revenues and increasing costs. Despite increased tolls, Moody’s credit rating agency foresees an ongoing struggle for the turnpike. A Republican representative is now advocating for the allocation of Marcellus Shale natural gas taxes to ease the toll road’s funding burden of nearly half a billion dollars in state transportation funding. While this may offer a short-term increase in funds, the underlying problems associated with the turnpike commission remain. A superior policy alternative would be to lease the turnpike.
Despite tolls being raised by 20 percent in 2009, the Pennsylvania Turnpike has still lost $2.4 billion. In 2012, the commission has ordered another 10 percent increase in an attempt to balance the budget. The turnpike’s debt has escalated by more than 180 percent, or $5 billion, since 2007. The additional debt will be accompanied by more than $11 billion in interest payments over the course of the next several decades. This will place a significant burden on taxpayers. The turnpike commission is exacerbating Pennsylvania’s state of fiscal instability. The history of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has been rifled with deficits, toll hikes, labor strikes, and corruption.
Unfortunately for Pennsylvanians, lawmakers continue to support the Turnpike Commission and all of its failures. A Republican representative is calling for natural gas taxes to be utilized to alleviate the turnpike’s funding of statewide transportation. This proposal is a common big government maneuver in which one program or revenue stream is utilized to fund another program. While the turnpike tolls are designed at funding the state roadway, its tolls on motorists are being directed to state transportation and mass transit. This is similar to immense alcohol markups by the PLCB that supplement the general fund instead of strictly financing law enforcement and regulation of the industry. Directing natural gas taxes towards state transportation initiatives is a similar ploy. These revenues should be earmarked solely for environmental regulation of the industry.
There is an alternative to the billions of debt and makeshift attempts by politicians geared toward raising new revenues on industries to fund troubled programs. Leasing the turnpike will flush the state with cash while improving the roadway for Pennsylvania motorists. If the Commonwealth would have proceeded with the lease agreement suggested by the Rendell administration, Pennsylvania would have received nearly $12 billion upfront and accrued a billion dollars in interest annually. In the leasing contracts, the state would have the autonomy to control toll hikes, receive payment for state police coverage and no longer be responsible for maintenance costs.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike continues to be a burden to taxpayers. The government owned roadway accrues billions of dollars in debt for taxpayers while continually raising tolls on motorists. Siphoning of funds from Marcellus Shale to turnpike commitments is only a short-term fix that maintains the status-quo. The Republican majority must take the lead and release the turnpike in order to turn the roadway form a costly liability to a profitable asset.