The Turnpike mess: Act 44 bites back
The Pennsylvania Turnpike’s massive debt hangover — the result of an idea that was doomed from the start — must not be allowed to become a skull-splitting headache for taxpayers.
State Act 44 of 2007 obligated the turnpike to fund road and bridge work and mass transit statewide to the tune of $900 million annually — and was premised on tolling Interstate 80. When the federal government predictably rejected that idea, the turnpike’s obligation was halved. But The Philadelphia Inquirer reports the agency is going ever deeper in debt to pay the $450 million it now owes PennDOT annually until 2057.
Despite tolls doubling over the past decade and continuing to rise yearly, the turnpike is $7 billion in the red, up from $2 billion in 2002. And if it defaults on those annual payments, state law says taxpayers will have to make up the shortfall through Pennsylvania’s gasoline tax.
Meanwhile, the turnpike just keeps borrowing, assuming traffic and toll revenue will rise. Yet revenue-miles peaked in 2003 and it’s projecting toll revenue will drop 4.4 percent this year.
“The situation is unsustainable,” says Auditor General Jack Wagner. He’s expected to testify at legislative hearings on turnpike finances in September.
Sparing taxpayers the burden of a turnpike default must guide reform. Harrisburg must find ways to fund transportation needs that don’t perpetuate the wishful thinking behind Act 44 or the deficit-spending mentality of turnpike management.