Like it or not, the tolling of highways will be part of how we fund our roads and bridges in the future. That said, there are two good reasons why the plan to erect toll booths on Interstate-80 should be rejected.
Tolls are appropriate because they are imposed directly upon travelers for their use of roads. However, the plan to toll I-80 represents more than a toll. It is also a tax on drivers because more than $160 million in toll dollars from the highway will be funneled to mass transit systems, primarily in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Taxing drivers in the northern tier to subsidize mass transit users in the southeast and southwest is bad public policy.
An even stronger reason to reject the I-80 tolling plan, however, is that the highway would be handed over to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC). The PTC has justly earned its reputation as a haven for patronage, nepotism, inefficiency and corruption.
Corruption. According to the federal conviction of former Philadelphia state Sen. Vincent Fumo, former PTC Chairman Mitchell Rubin received $150,000 in state Senate consulting fees for doing little to no legitimate work. The consulting contract overlapped with Rubin’s tenure at the PTC. In 2003, Rubin was discovered to have had 214 parking tickets (bearing fines of nearly $10,000) dismissed. Rubin has since been terminated and is currently under investigation by the FBI.
Inefficiency. The Turnpike has the nation’s second highest tolls and remains drastically overstaffed. For every mile of turnpike, the PTC has more than four employees and one senior-level manager. PennDOT, meanwhile, has one employee for every three miles of roadway. If you exclude toll booth operations, the Turnpike has nearly three employees per mile.
Wasteful Spending. In 2007, the PTC used toll revenues to fund almost $400,000 for lobbying in Washington, D.C. It spent an additional $300,000 lobbying state legislators. Rubin billed the commission for 12 meals totaling $12,522 (over $1,000 a meal). One $1,869.79 meal in Nantucket included $125 for Beluga caviar, $76 for quail salads, and $46-sirloins. Rubin billed it all to the commission, except the $1,050 bottle of wine.
Patronage. According to a legislative audit report in the late 1990s, the PTC could save millions of dollars by instituting competitive bidding for bond counsel work. The PTC has refused and insisted on granting “sole source” contracts based on political relationships.
Putting all other arguments for and against the tolling of I-80 aside, under no circumstances should the PTC be given any additional dominion over Pennsylvania’s transportation infrastructure. Giving the PTC another pet project would be bad not only for Pennsylvania, but for the Interstate System that has served the United States so well over the years.
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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.