A Road to Savings: Abolish the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission

During my campaign for governor more than 32 years ago, I made a pledge to restore integrity and efficiency to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT).

At the time, 40 percent of our roads and 25 percent of our bridges were in substandard condition. It was widely acknowledged that PennDOT served as a patronage dump; I went so far as to label it the “home of the three Ps – payoffs, patronage and potholes.” It was clear that fixing PennDOT was a necessity.

The residents of the commonwealth agreed, having faith in my pledge, and elected me governor. Shortly after beginning my first term, I began a thorough reconstruction of PennDOT.

Working with state Secretary of Transportation (and future Federal Highway Administration head) Tom Larson, I ignored all threats of political retribution and scrubbed PennDOT clean of graft and corruption. The difficult task of fixing PennDOT was a resounding success. In 1981 PennDOT was recognized as “one of the best managed – and financed – public works agencies in the country” by trade magazines. Larson was recognized by one publication as its Man of the Year. That was nearly 30 years ago.

Today the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) has replaced PennDOT as a dumping ground for the institutionalized entitlement we helped eradicate.

The top-heavy PTC, with more than 2,000 employees, is responsible for overseeing an exponentially smaller infrastructure than PennDOT. The PTC manages 537 miles of turnpike highways; PennDOT manages nearly 40,000 highway miles along with tens of thousands more miles of local roads, railways and bridges. There is an obvious opportunity to merge the two and save a wealth in funds.

Recent convictions and investigations have made it clear that abuse of tax dollars is a Turnpike tenet. Mitchell Rubin, the previous chairman of the Turnpike Commission, was fired in connection with an apparently bogus $150,000 contract he accepted while presiding as chair. Rubin’s connections to imprisoned former Sen. Vince Fumo paid well for Michael Palermo, a convicted criminal and Fumo protégé. The PTC staffer reaped a benefit of more than $287,000 in a no-work contract between 1999 and 2004. Currently the PTC is the subject of an FBI investigation related to a $181 million project in the Valley Forge area that was reportedly originally bid for $90 million.

Considering our recent state budget fiasco and current economic climate, a serious tightening of the belt in state spending is needed. Pennsylvanians deserve a dollar’s worth of service for every tax dollar spent – their money must be spent with thrift and strict oversight. Millions of tax dollars in savings could be realized if the state Legislature were to dissolve this bloated bureaucracy and move its functions into PennDOT.

There comes a time when merely mending a faulty appendage is not enough. Like a gangrenous limb, irreparable agencies chockablock with corruption must be severed. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is one such agency.

The Turnpike Commission is a haven for those who wish to gorge themselves upon commonwealth tax dollars and load the payroll for political purposes. This type of patronage abuse has no place in Pennsylvania politics.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission should be abolished.

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Dick Thornburgh served as governor of Pennsylvania from 1979 to 1987 and as U.S. Attorney General from 1988 to 1991. He is counsel to the international law firm of K&L Gates LLP.