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June 18, 2013 | By | Posted in Legislature

Audit: $50 toll ahead without PA turnpike debt reform

TOLLS AHEAD: Pennsylvania's auditor predicts heavy toll increases in future years.

TOLLS AHEAD: Pennsylvania’s auditor predicts heavy toll increases in future years.

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s auditor said that requiring the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to make $450 million annual payments to the state will take an ever increasing toll on taxpayers’ pocketbooks.

“If we don’t do something about this by the year 2021, it will cost $50 for the average working Pennsylvanian just to travel across our state,” said Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. “That is just unsustainable. There is no way that we can ask the average Pennsylvanian to pay that.”

DePasquale released a special audit Tuesday morning showing how much debt the turnpike will incur if lawmakers don’t end that $450 million annual payment. The money transfer, required by Act 44, offsets state costs for roads, bridges and public transit.

DEPASQUALE: Act 44 is forcing unsustainable toll increases.

He concludes that Act 44 has already cost the turnpike about $3.9 billion in debt as of 2012, a figure that will only grow as payments continue. Because of that debt, the average toll rate per mile has grown from 5.9 cents in 2007 to 10.9 cents in 2013, an increase of 84 percent.

Already, a full ride on the turnpike costs drivers $39.15, nearly double the charge when Act 44 passed in 2007. By 2057, when the Act 44 obligation expires, it would cost nearly $150 dollars to drive across Pennsylvania on the turnpike, from the Ohio state line to Interstate 81 in Lackawanna County.

“The longer that decision gets put off, the more expensive it becomes,” DePasquale said.

Debt service payments at the turnpike have gone up from $179 million in 2007 to $395 million a year in 2012 since Act 44 was passed.

Other costs are more indirect. DePasquale added that raising turnpike tolls because of Act 44 will over-burden side roads as travelers find routes to avoid tolls, causing more repair costs elsewhere.

The audit comes at a time when House lawmakers are wrapping up their version of a statewide, multi-modal transportation funding plan. The Senate has passed legislation for $2.5 billion worth of improvements annually, which includes an elimination of Act 44 payments by 2021.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai,R-Allegheny, who joined DePasquale for a brief announcement of the audit, said he wants to end payments as soon as possible, but acknowledged the challenge of finding $450 million in replacement revenue.

Turzai said he wants the legislature to use $200 million from uncapping the oil company franchise tax, a wholesale tax paid on gasoline, to begin to offset the turnpike’s payments. That, he said, could happen immediately.

But the state can’t use new gas tax revenues to replace the whole $450 million, since a portion of that money is also directed towards mass transit costs. Oil company franchise tax revenue, by law, must be used for roads and bridges.

TURZAI: wants to end Act 44 debt obligations as part of a larger transportation funding plan.

Still, this would allow a reduction in borrowing, Turzai said.

“We just have to make sure we address it in a responsible fashion, and I think any comprehensive transportation proposal has to address Act 44,” Turzai said.

From the turnpike’s perspective, a plan to get rid of Act 44 is welcome news.

Chief Executive Officer Mark Compton said in an email he was pleased to see the Senate address the obligation in its transportation package, and hopes the House will follow suit.  Otherwise, it could leave the turnpike unable to meet its own needs.

“We are concerned that our Act 44 obligation, unless modified, could jeopardize our ability to continue the needed level of investment in our own system,” he said. “If Act 44 is not changed, we may have to drastically cut capital spending.”

Contact Melissa Daniels at melissa@paindependent.com

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Melissa Daniels is a reporter for PA Independent. She can be reached at 717-350-0962 or Melissa@PAIndependent.com

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