Pennsylvania bill would allow leasing of toll roads

| 4/19/2007

Gov. Ed Rendell would really like to see state lawmakers approve legislation soon to authorize public-private partnerships in Pennsylvania.

The governor wants to auction off the Pennsylvania Turnpike to help raise money for transportation projects throughout the state. To do that, the legislature must send a bill to the governor’s suite authorizing such deals.

Rep. Rick Geist, R-Altoona, has offered a bill that would grant the governor’s wish. The measure – HB555 – in the House Transportation Committee would allow the state to enter into agreements with private business to lease toll roads and bridges.

Geist said making the “funding tool” available would give the state a new revenue source for transportation projects statewide.

“It’s a fairer system … only the user pays. And rather than going to the pump or charging big increases in registration fees this will provide monies that will go back to restoring Pennsylvania’s decrepit bridge and highway problem,” Geist said in a released statement.

Some lawmakers have suggested privatizing roadways, such as the turnpike and Interstate 80, as another option to a proposed 12.5-cent-per-gallon increase in fuel taxes recommended in a recent report by the state’s Transportation and Funding Reform Commission to help pay for needed road, bridge and public transit repairs. The report also recommended that lawmakers consider selling or leasing roads.

Rendell said he is hopeful he can sign legislation by mid-June so his administration can hammer out a lease deal and generate revenue in time for the fiscal year that starts July 1, The Associated Press reported.

The governor said leasing the nation’s first superhighway for $10 billion during the next 30 years would help the state raise $965 million annually for needed road and bridge work throughout the state.

“It is an exciting proposition to consider if we are to keep toll rates reasonable and generate enough money to make major improvements in our state’s transportation system without burdensome tax increases,” Rendell said.

Those leery of the leasing plan say more time is needed to study the issue. House Minority Leader Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, told The AP lawmakers should not be rushed into authorizing a lease.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor