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”

Transportation Funding Crisis Not a Budget Item

The governor’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission released its final report in August, and House Democratic Appropriations Chair Joe Markosek (D-Westmoreland/Allegheny) says it’s been ignored for too long.  “I’m just flabbergasted that he’s ignored transportation to the extent that he’s ignored it,” Markosek told us after this week’s budget address.  “It’s just almost unbelievable in my opinion.” 

Pennsylvania faces an annual transportation funding gap that tops $3-billion dollars.  While the new spending plan does not address the matter, Governor Tom Corbett did call it a priority in his budget speech on Tuesday:   

“This is not a budget item.  It is too large for that.  Transportation must be confronted as its own distinct and separate topic.  This problem has grown for the past several decades and it will not be solved overnight.  But, whatever solution we enact must be a lasting one.”

“I have spent significant time considering this issue with my transportation team and developed some workable solutions.  However those solutions will only be possible with your input, assistance and support.” 

Jake Corman

Jake Corman discusses state budget issues with the assembled media.

Senate Republican Appropriations Chair Jake Corman (R-Center) recently put the TFAC recommendations in to bill form in hopes of spurring action on the transportation funding crisis.  But he stresses that this type of funding falls outside of the General Fund and can be addressed at any time – not necessarily during budget season.  “We’ll be waiting for the governor to make his proposal… I look forward to that proposal, and once that comes forward I’m sure we’ll negotiate something that works for everybody,” Corman said during a Q&A with the media following Tuesday’s speech.

Transportation Funding Advisory Commission Final Report

State House Democrats Try to Get Movement on Transportation Funding

Some Democratic leaders in the state house are trying to get more focus on transportation funding issues.   Saying there is a cost to inaction; House Minority Whip Mike Hanna and Caucus Chairman Dan Frankel are introducing a package of bills to help close the state’s transportation funding gap.  The bills are based on the recommendations from the Governor’s own advisory commission on transportation, which issued its report in August. They are also similar to a package proposed by Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman (R-Centre).

Representative Hanna (D-Clinton) says it’s a comprehensive discussion that needs to be had, and they hope to jump start debate. He says   the state’s deteriorating roads and bridges deserve a higher priority than the governor is giving them.

The Governor has said he doesn’t believe the economy’s strong enough to handle higher motorist fees.

Representative Frankel (D-Allegheny) says it’s a matter of reprioritizing. He asks, do legislators want to go back to dealing with school vouchers and liquor sale privatization when the state’s roads and bridges are deteriorating?  He says mass transit, roads and bridges are something he thinks everyone in the Commonwealth understands we need.  He says the other issues are secondary.

Frankel believes the bills have the potential to put Pennsylvanians back to work and strengthen mass transit systems across the state.    His bill, HB2112, would dedicate the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s entire annual Act 44 contribution of 450 million dollars to mass transit.  Currently, 200 million of that money goes to roads and bridges.

Hanna’s bills, HB 2099 and 2101, would adjust driver fees for inflation, increase fines, uncap the Oil and Gas Franchise Tax over five years and modernize PennDOT to achieve savings in an effort to help close the current transportation funding gap.

Top Lawmaker Wants to Address Transportation Funding Now

Make room in the already crowded fall agenda.  In addition to Marcellus Shale, education reform, redistricting and privatization – transportation funding is the latest high profile issue to be added to the front burner.  State Senate Appropriations Chair Jake Corman (R-Centre) tells reporters that he’ll soon introduce legislation that mirrors the recommendations of the governor’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission.

Pennsylvania faces a roughly $3.5-billion annual transportation funding gap, and the commission’s recommendations would raise $2.5-billion by year five.  “We’re going to do this someday and it’s not going to get cheaper,” Sen. Corman says.  “The only reason not to do it is political fear, and that’s just not acceptable.” 

The Transportation Funding Advisory Commission would raise the money for roads and bridges by uncapping the Oil Company Franchise Tax, indexing vehicle and driver fees to inflation and increasing fines and fees for traffic violations.  The average driver could pay up to $36 more in year one, and $132 more by year five.  However, those amounts could be lower depending on how much of the oil franchise tax is passed onto consumers. 

But Corman says inaction is not saving Pennsylvanians any money.  “We’re going to pay it in extra gasoline in traffic; we’re going to pay it in extra wear and tear on our vehicles.  You know it’s an average 10-mile detour when a bridge is closed down,” Corman explained to reporters after session on Wednesday.

Corman says the time to act is now, but acknowledges that it will require direction from the governor, as the Transportation Committee chairmen have indicated no interest in moving this legislation without hearing from Gov. Tom Corbett. 

To this point, Corbett hasn’t made any decisions about how to approach transportation funding.  Speaking at a news conference earlier this month, Corbett said, “They’re all priorities that we need to take a look at, but not everything can go first.”  The governor was responding to a question about where transportation funding fits into the fall legislative agenda.

Lawmaker Suggests If We Sell The State Stores, We Spend The Money On Roads

If Pennsylvania privatizes the state store system, one lawmaker is suggesting the money be spent on transportation.   Representative Jerry Knowles  (R-Berks/Schuylkill) is calling it the IFF Act; that stands for Infrastructure Future Fund.  He says it means if we sell the state stores, the money should go to roads and bridges.

Knowles says under his proposal, every penny from a sale of state stores would go to construction or reconstruction of roads and bridges.   He says the money would go into a fund to be spent over a five year period, in increments of 20%, plus the interest gained.

Knowles says it would help create jobs, spur economic growth and build a brighter future.  He says he can think of no way to better spend the money than on roads and bridges. He says it would be one time spending over five years that would have an effect on all Pennsylvanians for at least the next 20 years.

Knowles says it’s not the cure-all, but it would be a piece of the puzzle in addressing transportation problems, while creating jobs and benefiting all Pennsylvanians. He says the state needs to look at a combination of ways to address its transportation funding problem.

Representative Knowles says he has about 3 dozen co-sponsors for HB2020, including the majority chairman of the State House Transportation Committee.  He has also discussed the idea with the Governor’s office.    

Transportation Funding Report Released

Transportation Funding Advisory Commission Final Report

The TFAC report includes funding recommendations, a litany of modernization ideas and a 10-year vision of strategic investment.

The five year funding plan, outlined in the final report, could generate an additional $2.5-billion dollars in annual transportation funding.   The report indicates that the governor’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission (TFAC) was directed not to consider hiking the gas tax, leasing the turnpike, or assumed federal aid. 

With those ideas off-the-table, the ultimate funding recommendations focused on adjusting driver and vehicle fees for inflation, uncapping the wholesale tax that oil companies pay and increasing fines that get funneled into the Motor License Fund. 

“It’s a very fair plan because it doesn’t focus all of the costs on one segment of the motoring public,” said Bob Latham, Executive Vice President of Associated PA Constructors, and one of 40-members on the Transportation Funding Advisory Commission.  “What it does seek to do is to start down that path, and increase funding gradually over a period of five years.  So you won’t see a major impact to highway users, whether they’re commercial users or personal motorists.” 

The impact on the typical driver – assuming no speeding tickets or other infractions – would be about $36-additional dollars in year one.  By year five, it could be up to $132 dollars.  But, PennDOT has said those are conservative estimates, based on all of the additional oil company tax revenue being passed onto consumers.  The report does point out that TFAC is “deeply aware” of the need to minimize the burden on taxpayers.  A few pages later it reads, “TFAC believes it is Pennsylvania’s best combination of options for aligning revenue with funding needs.” 

Nearly all of the major recommendations would require some sort of legislative action.  “Who knows, after the governor looks at it, what it’s going to look like when it goes to the legislature.  Then, who knows what it’s going to look like after they have a chance to look at it,” said Jim Runk, President of the PA Motor Truck Association, and another member of the 40-member panel. 

Runk was a bit leery when he was first appointed to the commission, but the feeling quickly faded.  “I think after the first hour or so I was pleasantly surprised that a group that large, and with so many different backgrounds, was able to come together and talk about the issues that are important to Pennsylvania.”