Why Turnpike Commission lobbying matters

A reader’s comments on our latest PikeTV video and reports on Turnpike lobbying argues that private bidders are also lobbying, and that tolling I-80 is “more fair” (i.e. nobody get a free ride).

It is certainly true that the firms bidding on the Turnpike lease have engaged lobbyists of their own. So why do we mention the lobbying done by the Turnpike Commission? Simply put, the opponents of leasing the Turnpike speak of retaining a “public asset” and keeping under the control of a “public agency”, as though the Turnpike Commission acts solely in the public interest and for the benefits of taxpayers and the residents of Pennsylvania.

But the Turnpike Commission’s activities and lobbying – which we are attempting to expose – demonstrate not a concern for the public interest, but a defense of the private interest of Turnpike Commissioners, bond attorneys contracting with the Commission, and their patrons in the General Assembly. Indeed the Turnpike Commission and the private bidder(s) should be viewed as competing private interests.

As to the notion that tolling I-80 is “more fair”, I have written on this theme before – see here and here. I would hardly call it more “fair” to increase taxes greatly on my neighbor, while receiving a slight increase in my own taxes – neither of which would greatly increase the state’s revenue or quality of service.

Yet this is exactly what the “fairness” argument in support of I-80 tolling entails. Act 44 promises higher Turnpike tolls – 25% in 2009 and 3% annually thereafter, a rate which may parallel and even exceed the caps on tolls under a lease. In fact one bond rating agency believes the Turnpike Commission will have to exceed their promised toll increases to pay for their new borrowing.

In other words, the “fairness” argument says that higher tolls on all Turnpike drivers is better, so long as I-80 drivers also pay more. We contend that lower tolls on both roads is the better policy option. While we would not oppose tolls on I-80, this should only be done with:

  1. A reduction in the gas tax, which has been charged for the construction and rehabilitation of I-80 (whereas the Turnpike was built with borrowing on future toll revenues, and is supposed to be of higher quality) and
  2. Like the Turnpike, it should be competitively bid to ensure that motorists and taxpayers receive the best deal – both in terms of revenue to the state and limits on tolls.