Tough Questions for Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission

The PA Turnpike Commission (PTC) testified before the Senate Transportation Committee during this summer’s special session on transportation funding. Most senators on the committee expressed concern on several aspects regarding the PTC.

Senators inquired about the new toll increase, 3% for E-ZPass users and 10% for cash paying drivers, starting January 2, 2011. Specifically, Sen. Gordner asked about news that the new toll increases will make Pennsylvania the most costly in the nation. PTC CEO Joe Brimmeier said these claims are false, and that 14 states have costlier roads.

What Brimmeier neglected to mention was the Pennsylvania Turnpike will in fact become the most expensive long toll road (roads 100 miles or longer) in the nation. It is true that some states have more expensive toll facilities, but those are limited to short range highways spurs and bridges. The Turnpike will cost 8.5 cents per mile after the toll increases.

The PTC is also $6.5 billion in debt, a debt that has nearly tripled in the last three years. Last month, Moody’s downgraded its rating on some Turnpike bonds, and issued a negative outlook due to rising debt. Standard and Poor’s also issued an analysis warning that steep increases to tolls will create public and political backlash. The CFO said the Turnpike has taken steps to address the bond issues that were not reflected at the time of Moody’s downgrading.

Still, Sen. Earll said the debt gives her the “heebie jeebies” and that the Senate Transportation Committee will need to maintain pressure on the PTC, and evaluate whether administrative overhead is in line with the overall budget.

Both Earll and the committee chairman, Sen. Rafferty, questioned some of PTC positions with high salaries and ambiguous names, asking about their purpose. The PTC has been successful in eliminating 15 management positions and 180 collector positions, but still has nearly 2,100 employees, and still has many more workers per mile than PennDOT.

The PTC has a long history of corruption dealing with patronage, inefficiency, and litigation.

To be fair to the PTC, the commission has made some improvements, which several of the senators attributed to talks of privatizing the Turnpike (the PTC was scared into an attempt at efficiency). The Commonwealth Foundation has touted the benefits of a Turnpike lease in the past. Some steps the PTC is taking to “act more like a private business” (in the words of the CEO) include:

  • Outsourcing its plaza service to HMS Host and Sunoco, which is saving the expense of $170 million to build new service plazas.
  • A partnership with State Farm to enhance road safety through the “State Farm Safety Patrol.” State Farm has paid to brand PTC-owned and operated safety vehicles.
  • A partnership with TransCore, to operate the “back-office” operations of the E-ZPass accounts.
  • Becoming more transparent through the 2008 introduction of an Electronic Bidding System. Bids are advertised on the Turnpike website.

Many senators reiterated the necessity of having more frequent meetings with the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission in order to promote progress and observe the debt situation.