9/8/2016Pennsylvania Auditor Predicts Toll Road Disaster
State auditor predicts reliance on tolling revenue will doom transportation funding in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania's toll-dependent road funding system is a disaster in the making. That was the finding Tuesday of Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene A. DePasquale, who reviewed the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission's books and found that the numbers simply did not add up.
"The turnpike is relying on unrealistic revenue growth projections that should be setting off alarms now and in the near future," DePasquale said.
Already under a heavy debt load, the turnpike is relying on "highly optimistic" consultants who predict a 215 percent increase in toll revenue and a 44 percent in traffic volume. The audit suggests this is entirely implausible considering traffic has been flat for a decade. The result, DePasquale estimated, would be a statewide transportation funding crisis by 2023.
The source of the problem is the 2007 law known as Act 44, an attempt to shift the state's transportation funding toward public-private partnerships and tolling. Central to the plan were the imposition of tolls on Interstate 80 and the leasing of the turnpike to a Spanish company in return for $12.8 billion. Both deals fell through, but Act 44 required $450 million each year in motorist tolls be diverted to the state department of transportation (PennDOT), at least $250 million of which would be spent on projects for the benefit of non-drivers. In return, the turnpike could hike tolls, which it did to collect $934 million last year.
In 2013, after turnpike officials were indicted for corruption, the General Assembly reduced the turnpike toll diversion requirement to $50 million beginning in 2023. Even so, the turnpike will still have to make $10 billion in legislatively mandated payments to PennDOT through 2057, despite already being $5.6 billion in the red. To meet this obligation, the report predicts that the cost of a trip from Valley Forge to Pittsburgh will have to rise from the present $32.90 toll to $94.31 in 2044. A commercial truck will be charged $355.75 for the same journey.
"In short, this means the turnpike must continue to raise rates every year and it must increase the number of vehicles that use the roadway by historic levels," DePasquale said. "As Vice President Joe Biden might say, that's a bunch of malarkey. There's no way more people are going to use the turnpike and pay more and more money to do it."
The audit predicts that high tolling rates will drive motorists to skip the toll road and find free routes to their destination. The auditor has criticized the toll road before, and he noted that tolling officials adopted recommendations in some respects, but they failed in others.
"None of our prior recommendations related to employee toll-free travel on the turnpike and limiting toll-free travel for consultants, contractors and other state government officials have been implemented," DePasquale wrote.
Some 2063 turnpike employees have badges that allow them to skip out on tolls worth $1.4 million. Another 5000 consultants enjoy $4.1 million worth of free trips.
A copy of the report is available in a 1.7mb PDF file at the source link below.