DePasquale warns of potential ‘transportation disaster’ following PA Turnpike Commission audit
Travelers and truck drivers could see toll prices along the Pennsylvania Turnpike rise well above 200 percent over the next 20 years if financial plans for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission ring true, the state’s top fiscal watchdog has cautioned.
The commission, in the interest of unburdening itself from current and future debt, has based its plan on projections from an outside consultant. The changes would raise the cash rate of travel from Pittsburgh to Valley Forge from $32.90 to $72.28, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said at a press conference in Pittsburgh.
The commission’s plan was released as part of an audit by DePasquale into the Turnpike Commission’s finances and operations for the fiscal years 2014 to 2016. He warned of a potential “transportation disaster” caused by a combination of increasing uncollected toll violations, accumulating debt and “unrealistic” projections crafted to solve the commission’s troubles.
The report shows the Turnpike Commission is on “potentially unstable financial ground that could have serious repercussions on the state’s entire transportation system if the General Assembly doesn’t act soon,” DePasquale wrote in a press release.
Of his findings, DePasquale noted unpaid toll violations have increased dramatically, leading the commission to write off $12 million to $20 million per year in uncollected violations.
Violations typically occur when drivers grab a ticket at the beginning of their route and later exit through an EZ Pass lane. Cameras capture license plates numbers and tickets are issued to owner of the cars, but their tickets often go unpaid, DePasquale said.
More than 726,000 violations were sent in 2015, he said, totaling $61.3 million in violations and fees, of which $43.2 million remained uncollected at the end of 2015.
Like past audits, he also concluded that the commission’s debt and required payments to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation are bogging it down.
He blamed Act 44 for the debt load. In 2007, the General Assembly and Gov. Ed Rendell passed Act 44, which called for the implementation of tolls on Interstate 80. Funds from those tolls would be handed over to PennDot annually.
However, the tolls were never added after the Federal Highway Administration denied the commonwealth permission to toll the road.
Despite the request’s denial, the Turnpike Commission was still obligated to funnel money to PennDot at a rate of $450 million per year through 2022, DePasquale said.
The General Assembly passed legislation in 2013 decreasing the payments to $50 million, but the change will not kick in until 2023.
Until then, DePasquale warns, there will be a $400 million gap in the amount of money PennDOT receives. The funds support public transit agencies in cities and communities, according to his press release.
“If the General Assembly doesn’t begin to act now to come up with a plan to make up for the shortfall, the residents who rely on public transit agencies will be faced with severe service cuts — which could result in unaffordable fare hikes,” he wrote in the release.
In order for the commission to make payments, it came up with a financial plan, which DePasquale deemed “alarming.”
Their projections include raising toll revenue by 215 percent between 2015 and 2035 and increasing traffic volume by 44 percent through 2044, according to DePasquale’s report.
“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 wrote in his release. “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 cash price of a passenger vehicle to travel the entirety of the turnpike is already edging over $40, according to the commission’s website.
Higher costs could cause drivers to turn to back roads to avoid tolls altogether, DePasquale said at his conference.
The commission also looks to decrease spending costs on capital improvement projects, which have already been reduced by $1 billion over the next 10 years, he wrote in the release.
“This is where it gets even more unrealistic. You can’t cut back on construction and increase traffic 44 percent, especially while jacking up the toll rates,” he wrote in the release. “It’s nonsensical. People aren’t going to pay to sit on the turnpike parking lot. The entire projection is simply unsustainable.”
He gave a few ideas for solutions, like suspending vehicle registration if the owner has outstanding toll violations and putting an end to toll-free travel for some contractors and consultants who use the roads for business and personal travel, but said it is up to the General Assembly to move with haste to prevent a future disaster.
Sean Logan, chairman of the commission, responded to DePasquale’s audit in a statement shortly after its release:
“I deeply appreciate the Auditor General’s thorough review along with the recommendations he made. We remain committed to improving our operations to become more efficient while providing safe, efficient travel for our 500,000 daily customers.”
He wrote the commission plans to work with DePasquale and the Legislature to craft “meaningful tolling enforcement legislation” to tackle the growing number of violations, and with commission staff to reassess construction projects to ensure they are necessary and affordable.
“I am confident we are on the right track, but we can always do more to improve operations. For that reason, we are grateful for the exhaustive review and report from the Auditor General and his team,” Logan wrote.