Some Lawmakers Want to Abolish Turnpike Commission

It’s not the first time someone in Harrisburg has called for abolishing the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, but this plan comes on the heels of a grand jury corruption indictment.

House Bill 1197 would transfer all Turnpike operations to PennDOT. A new Bureau of Toll Administration would be created, with a deputy secretary to oversee it. The state would also assume the turnpike’s debt and a committee would be appointed to look at ways to retire it.

Representative Donna Oberlander says the commission is outdated and in order to address Pennsylvania’s critical transportation funding issue, the state must eliminate all inefficiencies and excess.  She says workers would be protected; the bill calls for honoring all collective bargaining agreements in effect at the time of the transfer, meaning union contracts would remain intact.

Representative Mike Vereb cited the recent grand jury indictments charging pay to play corruption in the turnpike’s former administration.   He says things have changed, the turnpike has restored a different style of leadership, but he suggests “this tumor is beyond radiation”.

Vereb says with this “bible” handed to them by the attorney general and former attorney general, they have a reason, goal and mission; and now all they need is some political courage.

Representative Jim Christiana says it’s important to look at all aspects of transportation as the state deals with the critical issue of funding. He says before we can ask for more revenue, we have to make sure we’re spending transportation dollars as efficiently and effectively as possible.

The Turnpike Commission issued a response, saying it has not taken a position on a proposal to merge with PennDOT. The release points out that reforms have been undertaken and the Turnpike has been working closer with PennDOT in recent years.

Turnpike CEO Directs New Accountability Measures

The head of the Pennsylvania Turnpike says the commission is making a clean break from any past offenses.  After reading the grand jury presentment that led to criminal charges being filed in a “pay-to-play” corruption scheme, CEO Mark Compton tells Radio PA that his emotions went from disappointment to outrage.

“The one thing that I can assure our traveling public, to them and to our employees, both of you deserve better and we are going to make darn sure that these things never happen again.”

On Monday Compton ordered the Office of Compliance to conduct a review of every contract awarded during the timeframe of the Attorney General’s investigation and called for a memo to be sent out to Turnpike vendors, explaining the commission’s revised procurement policies.  Compton’s also asking that all Turnpike employees sign their existing code of conduct. 

This is all coming less than two months on the job for Compton, who is taking action to ensure past mistakes aren’t repeated again. 

The new accountability directives at the Turnpike are in addition to the reforms Compton pointed out in a statement released immediately following last week’s grand jury presentment.

RadioPA Roundtable

Radio PA Roundtable 03.15.13

On this week’s Radio PA Roundtable, Brad Christman and Matt Paul sit down with Governor Tom Corbett to discuss his slumping poll numbers and the state of the economy.

This week’s show also features an explanation of the “Pay-to-Play” scandal at the Turnpike that’s resulted in criminal charges, and we’ll hear Harrisburg Bishop Joseph McFadden’s thoughts on Pope Francis. 

Radio PA Roundtable is a 30-minute program featuring in-depth reporting on the top news stories of the week.

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:


Charges Reveal Pay-to-Play History at Turnpike

A years-long grand jury investigation finds that in order to get big Pennsylvania Turnpike contracts… you had to pay-to-play.  Eight men now face criminal charges: one former lawmaker, five former Turnpike Commission officials and two businessmen.  The biggest name in the bunch is former state Senate Democratic Leader Bob Mellow, who’s already serving a federal prison term on corruption charges.  Others charged include former Turnpike CEO Joseph Brimmeier and former Turnpike Commissioner Mitchell Rubin. 

The charges include: bribery, bid-rigging, corruption and theft.

The charges include: bribery, bid-rigging, corruption and theft.

“According to the charges, those who pay-to-play have sought and been rewarded with multi-million dollar Turnpike contracts and the public has lost untold millions of dollars,” says Attorney General Kathleen Kane who announced the grand jury’s findings on Wednesday. 

Kane says the Turnpike created its own fiefdom, whereby officials forced vendors to make hefty contributions to the political campaigns of their choosing.

Joining Kane in the Capitol Media Center was State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan, who encourages the public not to paint all state employees & officials with the same brush of corruption.  “There were numerous state employees who tried to stand up for the right things to do,” Noonan says.  “They were terminated.  They received poor evaluations and they were isolated.  They knew something was wrong but they couldn’t do anything about it.” 

‘The right thing’ is what the new CEO says the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is doing today.  In a statement, Mark Compton says he’s troubled by today’s news:

“If charges against former Turnpike employees are indeed proven, we certainly cannot – and will not – defend that.  But I can say these actions definitely don’t represent the hard-working men and women who keep our road open and safe for customers….”  Compton’s statement goes on to point to a number of accountability reforms enacted at the Turnpike in recent years. 

All eight defendants will be prosecuted in Dauphin County; the investigation is ongoing.

Auditor General Blasts Turnpike’s “Free Rides”

Auditor General Jack Wagner wants the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to stop giving employees and vendors toll-free personal travel.  “They can utilize the Turnpike at will, both for work-related purposes and for free personal use,” Wagner told a crowd of reporters gathered in a Finance Building conference room.  “In our first finding, we basically state that the free personal use should be eliminated.” 

Wagner was previewing an upcoming audit report, which shows the Turnpike gave out a total of $7.7-million dollars worth of free rides between January 2007 and August 2011.  While the Turnpike has no mechanism for differentiating between on-the-job and personal travel, Wagner says the issue – at least – begs for more oversight. 

Pointing to next month’s toll hike, Wagner says the Turnpike should be doing everything it can to hold down fares for its customers.  Wagner’s letter to the Turnpike Commission asks for a written response that he can include in the final report, which is due out before he leaves office next month.  A Turnpike spokesman says the letter was received Monday afternoon, and a draft of Wagner’s report is currently under review.

Lawmakers Hear Conflicting Views of Turnpike Finances

Members of the House and Senate transportation committees got a crash course on Pennsylvania Turnpike finances this week.  But it’s a good thing there was no pop quiz, because many of them were left with more questions than answers.  “My head is spinning. Is there a crisis or isn’t there a crisis?” asked Rep. Mike McGeehan (D-Philadelphia), minority chairman of the House Transportation Committee. 

Auditor General Jack Wagner urged the panel to repeal Act 44 of 2007.  While the tolling of Interstate 80 never came to be, the transportation funding law still calls for the Turnpike Commission to make annual payments of $450-million to PennDOT.  “The Turnpike Commission, with debt of $7-billion and growing, is clearly drowning in debt due to the burdens placed on it by Act 44.” 

Wagner says Turnpike debt has increased 181% in the five years since the law was enacted.  “This is all unacceptable because the Turnpike, quite frankly, isn’t going to survive if this continues,” Wagner testified. 

But Turnpike officials are adamant there is no financial crisis.  “We have a developed a sound, fiscally responsible approach to meeting all of our financial obligations, including the $450-million annual payments to PennDOT,” explained Turnpike Commission CEO Roger Nutt.

Wearing his hat as a member of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch explained their annual debt service is only $35-million dollars a year, compared to the $450-million dollar fund transfer to the state.  Over time, Schoch says, the revenue raised from annual toll increases will exceed the debt service, allowing the commission to pay down the debt. 

After meeting for two hours, Senate Transportation Chair John Rafferty (R-Montgomery) announced that a second hearing will need to be scheduled.  The one thing lawmakers and testifiers all seemed to agree on is that Pennsylvania must address its transportation funding crisis… with or without Act 44.

Lawmaker Calls on Turnpike Officials to Resign

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is sitting on $7.3-billion dollars in long-term debt, according to Auditor General Jack Wagner, and state Rep. Peter Daley (D-Washington/Fayette) is calling on two top Turnpike officials to resign.

In a letter sent to the Turnpike Commission, governor’s office and every member of the state House, Daley said it’s time for Turnpike CEO Roger Nutt and COO Craig Shuey to go.  “They have been trying to play this shell game long enough,” Daley said in an interview with WJPA-FM.

The rise in Turnpike debt can be attributed to a 2007 transportation funding plan known as Act 44.  The law, which Daley voted for, called for the tolling of Interstate 80.  While Pennsylvania never received approval for I-80 tolls, Act 44 still calls on the Turnpike Commission to make annual payments of $450-million dollars a year to PennDOT.

Daley’s letter acknowledges that Act 44 has added to the Turnpike’s woes, but he still believes that a lack of leadership is to blame, saying the Turnpike needs to put expensive new capital projects on hold.

While a Turnpike Commission spokesman declined to comment on Daley’s letter, he did provide us with a statement from Roger Nutt regarding their debt obligations.  It reads:  “I reassure you, there is no looming financial crisis at the Turnpike Commission; we continue to receive favorable bond ratings, and we fully intend to meet all funding obligations to PennDOT – as we’ve done for the past five years.” 

Daley says a House committee is expected to take a closer look at the Turnpike debt situation in the weeks ahead.  “We’re going to be asking that a special committee be set up to oversee what’s going on in the Turnpike Commission and to render a report back to the legislature”

Turnpike Sets 2013 Tolls, Takes Step Toward Possible All Electronic System

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has approved tolls for next year.   There will be a differential again in 2013 between what E-ZPass customers pay and what cash customers pay.

Tolls for cash customers will rise 10%, but E-ZPass users will pay only 2% more. Turnpike Spokesman Carl DeFebo says it costs less to collect the tolls electronically. With the toll increase next year, the difference between E-ZPass and cash fares will be about 25%.  He says it’s currently around 17% on average. He says that means substantial savings for people who sign up for E-ZPass.

DeFebo says the commission has also selected a program manager to lead the potential conversion to all electronic tolling. But he says they’re looking at a minimum of 5 years to covert the system.  

He adds even an all-electronic system would still have an option for someone who does not have  E-ZPass. DeFebo says they’re looking at some type of video tolling.  That would involve taking a photo of the license plate and sending a bill in the mail to the licensed owner.

DeFebo says the commission has been reducing the number of toll collectors through attrition since E-ZPass began. He says the workforce has been reduced by more than 250 over the past decade.  He says that effort will continue.

DeFebo says you currently can get E-ZPass on line, through AAA and at Giant Eagle, GetGo, Karns and Acme Stores.  He says the commission is negotiating with a couple of major national retail chains to make transponders more available.

PennDOT, Turnpike Unveil New Plow

Winter is almost here, and state transportation officials have a new weapon in the battle against snow and ice. New, 30-foot long tow plows can clear two, 12-foot wide highway lanes at once.  “We plow it with the operator driving the truck into the passing lane, then checking for traffic and pulling a lever to steer the tow plow into the other lane,” says PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch. 

The tow plows have been tested at 55 – 60-miles an hour and will only be used on multi-lane expressways.  They can also help to reduce costs at PennDOT.  “With one vehicle we can now do what two trucks were doing, which means that one of the other trucks can go out to one of the other roads and get it cleared more quickly,” Schoch explains.  12 tow plows will be in use statewide this winter; PennDOT will deploy eight of them and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission will have four of its own.

About 40-times a year motorists will crash into one of PennDOT’s plows, and officials are using this opportunity to stress winter driving safety too.  They say to keep at least six car lengths behind an operating snow plow and to never pass one.  Failure to heed these warnings can get you caught in a truck’s blind spot, pummel your car with heavy flying snow or lead to an unwanted encounter with the plow itself, which is wider than the truck.    

Tow Plow

By pulling a lever, plow truck operators will be able to swing this tow plow into action. NEVER try to pass one of these on the right.

Turnpike Commission Polling Cash Customers About Electronic Toll Collection

The Pennsylvania Turnpike wants to know what cash customers would do if it went to an all electronic tolling system.  The Turnpike Commission has launched an online survey.

Turnpike spokesman Bill Capone says the purpose of the survey is to get input on the possibility of the toll road converting to a cashless system, or all electronic tolling system.  He says for people who don’t have EZ Pass, electronic tolling would involve taking a photo of their license plate and billing the vehicle owner by mail. About one-third of the turnpike’s customers pay with cash.

The survey ends on August 22nd.  It can be found at  By completing the survey, you will be eligible to win a $100-dollar Sunoco gas card. 

Capone says people in some other states who are passing through Pennsylvania on the turnpike may not have easy access to EZ Pass, so an all electronic system would take that into account.  Right now, EZ Pass is available in 14 states.

The turnpike commission announced recently that tolls would go up 10% for cash customers beginning January 1st, 2012.  There will be no increase for EZ Pass customers.

Capone says the turnpike commission is currently conducting a feasibility study to look at converting the turnpike to an all electronic tolling system, so they need to know from their cash paying customers how that might affect them.  He says they want to know whether those customers would be willing to convert to EZ Pass or pay their tolls in another way.