Turnpike critics say patronage will be lessened by switch to all-electronic toll collection
Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission critics say the agency’s planned conversion to all-electronic toll collection could alter one of the state’s last bastions of political patronage jobs.
“I don’t think it will get rid of patronage hiring at the turnpike, but certainly it will reduce the number of patronage jobs available,” said Nathan A. Benefield, director of policy analysis at the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative policy group in Harrisburg.
Turnpike officials said the switch to electronic tolling within five years is designed to reduce spending, not patronage. A study released last spring predicted the move could slash toll collection costs — mostly wages and benefits — at least $67 million a year. The agency’s operating budget is $326.7 million this fiscal year.
Acting Turnpike CEO Craig Shuey did not answer questions about patronage and the agency’s five commissioners either could not be reached or did not return calls.
But in an interview this month that touched on long-standing allegations state officials use influence to get jobs for friends and family, the turnpike’s recently hired Compliance Chief David A. Gentile said, “I don’t attach a great deal of substantive merit to those type of allegations. In any organization there is some type of favoritism shown and patronage. As long as employees are performing their duties responsibly and productively, I don’t care how they got here.”
At least one former turnpike official makes no apologies for using his influence to help dozens of people get jobs over two decades, including his son and a former landscaper.
“I’m proud of it. I don’t condone anyone getting a job and not doing the work, but most of the people I referred have gone on to do good work and have been exemplary employees,” said former Commissioner James Dodaro, 68, of White Oak.
The turnpike has more than 621 toll collectors earning between $19.56 and $22.69 an hour.
Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said some could remain with the agency in other capacities after the agency moves to all-electronic tolling.
The turnpike expects to pay $250 million to replace toll booths along the 553-mile system with overhead gantries. Equipment on the gantries will read E-ZPass transponders in the vehicles of customers driving beneath and electronically deduct tolls from their prepaid accounts. Cameras will collect images of license plates and use that information to send bills to non-E-ZPass customers.
Gary Pedicone, representative of the Teamsters Local 250 that includes toll collectors, didn’t dispute that patronage hiring occurs but he could not estimate the degree to which it does.
“It’s not as if (being politically connected) is a prerequisite to getting hired. Of course, it can’t hurt, just like any line of work,” Pedicone said.
Pedicone said he thought patronage hiring was more of a problem in the management ranks of the turnpike.
“I respect our toll collectors. They work hard and it’s not an easy job. But let’s be honest, you don’t have to have special qualifications to do it. You do in management,” Pedicone said.
Hiring has involved patronage since the turnpike began operating in 1940, said William Keisling, 54, of York, who wrote two books about the agency.
In years past, Keisling said, toll collectors were required to pay patronage bosses $100 a year. Court decisions in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s gradually ended the practice and began a shift toward so-called pinstripe patronage in which the agency would “give legal, bond and other consulting work to party-friendly people who would then give hundreds of thousands of dollars back to political campaigns,” Keisling said.
At least three management-level turnpike employees sued the agency in the past two years alleging superiors fired them or denied them promotions because of patronage practices. One case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, one is unresolved and a federal district judge dismissed the third last summer. Hiring practices also are a focal point of an ongoing state grand jury investigation, and patronage figured into the high-profile 2009 conviction of former state Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, who among other things helped a friend get a no-show turnpike consulting job that paid $120,000 a year.
Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or [email protected].