Pennsylvania’s war of words over funding

| 6/24/2008

For many in Pennsylvania, the battle over transportation funding has become a game of Interstate 80 tolls versus a lease of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to private investors. Meanwhile, highway user groups say both plans are flawed and that the state needs to reform its spending habits first.

“This has become a hard, drawn-out process for the taxpayers in Pennsylvania,” said Mike Joyce, senior government affairs representative for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

“I don’t know how many times you need to say it, but money doesn’t grow on trees.”

State lawmakers are becoming increasingly polarized about which proposal to root for – the proposed conversion of I-80 into a toll road or the proposed lease of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to private investors.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly passed Act 44 in July 2007 as a funding measure, designating I-80 tolls as the preferred method of generating revenue for highways, bridges and mass transit.

Gov. Ed Rendell signed Act 44 into law but has since said he would rather lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to private investors for 75 years and receive $12.8 billion.

The governor chose a preferred bidder for the turnpike in mid-May called Pennsylvania Transportation Partners, a consortium that includes toll operator Abertis of Spain and a New York-based subsidiary of Citibank.

The consortium recently hired a public-relations firm and has issued a challenge to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and its CEO, Joseph Brimmeier.

“Today we call on the Turnpike Commission to join with us in a series of public forums all across the state to compare the lease with Act 44 and other proposals that are being considered –  and let the facts stand on their own,” consortium spokesman Jim Courtovich stated in a press release Saturday, June 21.

In response, Brimmeier said the power to decide the future of funding lies with the General Assembly.

“The matter is now in the hands of the state House and Senate Transportation Committees, who must analyze the concession agreement that’s been submitted for their consideration,” Brimmeier said in a written statement provided by a turnpike spokesman.

“If asked, we will take part in the discussion that will no doubt arise from the bid now before lawmakers.”

As the battle rages on, Rendell and Pennsylvania Transportation Partners chose to extend their agreement by 30 days until mid-July with hopes gaining legislative approval for the lease before the General Assembly recesses for the summer.

The House Transportation Committee has scheduled a public hearing for Thursday and Friday, June 26-27, with Chairman Joseph Markosek, D-Allegheny-Westmoreland, presiding. Markosek voted last year in favor of Act 44 and I-80 tolls.

The topic of the two-day hearing is House Bill H2593, filed by Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, and Rep. Steven Cappelli, R-Lycoming, to authorize the leasing of the turnpike.

Some lawmakers are calling for the repeal of Act 44 while others are working strenuously to oppose the turnpike lease.

The political strategizing is a bit like a chess game at this stage, says OOIDA’s Joyce.

“There are some groups that find themselves supporting one versus the other, and there’s clearly a lot of political gamesmanship going on to the detriment of truckers and the highway users,” Joyce said.

“Quite frankly, we hope that this ends in a stalemate because they’re both horrible proposals.”

– By David Tanner, staff writer