Legislature needs to address finances of state turnpike
Next year will open the proverbial window to some semblance of fiscal Sunshine for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.
It is on July 1, 2022, that much of the turnpike agency’s annual supplemental funding obligation to the state Department of Transportation for transit services under Pennsylvania Act 44 of 2007 will expire.
State lawmakers must not extend the expiring obligation.
The commission has a massive responsibility to continue with needed upgrades to the toll road, as well as expensive challenges tied to routine and sometimes not-so-routine maintenance.
Actually, the turnpike’s financial obligation to PennDOT was wrong early on, as the funding was part of the foundation of a plan to toll Interstate 80.
When that plan did not materialize, the turnpike’s fiscal obligation to PennDOT should have been repealed.
However, it was not because having that cash cow in place softened pressure on the Pennsylvania General Assembly to provide adequate funding for the state transportation agency.
Money of the amount of what came from the turnpike could — and was — directed to other initiatives.
Meanwhile the state for years has nevertheless been dealing with serious physical challenges — challenges exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Back in 2007, 2022 seemed so far away. Surprise — it is almost on Harrisburg’s doorstep.
Unless there is some extension of the turnpike’s PennDOT obligation — and, again, there should not be — state lawmakers will have to deal with the reduced funding from the turnpike beginning in the 2022-23 fiscal year.
Beginning on July 1, 2022, resulting from Pennsylvania Act 89 of 2013, the turnpike’s current $450 million annual obligation to PennDOT Will drop to $50 million annually.
Thus, there is a financial beast roaming the halls of the Pennsylvania Capitol, and it is reasonable to wonder how many lawmakers — current and potential — and how many potential 2022 gubernatorial candidates are aware of the difficult transportation decisions that lie ahead.
At the same time, the Turnpike Commission also has been dealing with the financial difficulties, not only tied to the PennDOT-related obligation but also the pandemic, that have forced the turnpike to reduce its capital plan and thus its infrastructure projects.
The turnpike says that will be the case for the next decade or longer.
Nevertheless, when the Turnpike Commission transferred $337.5 million — 3 quarterly payments of $112.5 million each — to the state earlier this month to fulfill its latest legal obligation, the commission expressed an attitude of pride in having made good on its mandate to fund transit agencies in the Commonwealth’s largest cities.
Overall, the turnpike has provided $7.337 billion in Act 44 funding.
Going forward, two questions are apropos:
• From what sources will lawmakers obtain the funds to fill the financial gap resulting from the $400 million reduction in the turnpike obligation?
• Will the additional $400 million annually in the turnpike’s bank account provide a window for stabilizing the toll road’s toll structure or even allow a small toll reduction eventually?
The continuing uptick in the highway’s tolls is discouraging more and more travelers from using the turnpike.
Many motorists and companies are finding it to be to their financial benefit to detour to Interstate 680 in northern Maryland or, yes, also toll-free (for now) Interstate 80.
“We must ensure that (July 1, 2022) is the end of this particular fiscal chapter for us,” said Turnpike CEO Mark Compton.
He is correct.