Turnpike lease idea detoured to future

Charles Thompson in the Patriot News on Gov. Rendell giving up, for now, the idea of leasing the Turnpike.

Some supporters of free enterprise see this as a missed opportunity.

“What they’re subjecting Pennsylvanians now to is more of the same … doing what they’ve always done,” said Geoff Segal, director of government reform for the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank.

Segal remains convinced such public-private partnerships — which drew national attention last year after an international consortium struck a 75-year deal to manage the Indiana Toll Road — are a wave of the future.

“Yes, leasing the turnpike would require a lot of work and a lot of energy, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it,” he said. “This Legislature is taking the familiar route with taxes, fees and debt, rather than being progressive and innovative, and looking for a new way of doing business.”

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be many “supporters of free enterprise” taking a stand in the General Assembly. Segal, who is also an adjunct scholar with the Commonwealth Foundation, is dead on – and the plan passed by House Democrats today undermines the future of a Turnpike lease.

But others had argued vehemently that leasing the turnpike would have subjected motorists to generations of higher tolls driven by profit, rather than balancing the budget.

The deal passed by the House includes dramatic toll increases (25% in 2010, 2.5% each year thereafter) and tolls on I-80. Competitively bidding – allowing the Turnpike Commission to bid against private firms – could generate more money, or lower toll increases.

Why set an abritrary toll increase, without bidding for the best deal, according to the wish of the Turnpike Commission?

“We’re not a conservative state, but we’re a traditional state,” said lobbyist Chris Bravacos of The Bravo Group, the firm hired by the Turnpike Commission to help fight against the leasing plan. “We’re a state that still has state stores.”

This is just another example of special interests trumping good policy.