Pennsylvania bill would authorize lease of turnpike

| 2/8/2008

As an alternative to putting tolls on Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania, a state lawmaker has introduced a bill that would privatize the Pennsylvania Turnpike in three sections to help pay for road and bridge work throughout the state.

Sen. John Gordner, R-Berwick, said the bill also would repeal a seven-month-old law that authorized the state to pursue charging motorists and truck drivers to use the interstate.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and the state Department of Transportation are seeking federal approval to convert I-80 into a “pay-as-you-go” route as authorized by legislation approved in July 2007. The U.S. Department of Transportation is reviewing the state’s application.

In a memo he sent to other senators early this year, Gordner said the state needs a revenue-making alternative in light of public opposition to erecting 10 toll barriers along the 313-mile east-west route. He also cited the possibility that the federal government could reject the tolling plan.

The solution sought by Gordner is to auction the 530-mile turnpike in three parts to private American-based and majority American-owned companies. The roadway would be divided from the Ohio line east to Harrisburg and from Harrisburg east to the New Jersey line. The Northeast extension, which stretches from Norristown to Scranton, would be the third part.

Lease deals would allow for companies to enter into public-private partnership agreements with the state. Dividing the turnpike would allow for greater competition among a larger pool of companies, Gordner wrote to lawmakers.

Gov. Ed Rendell said he will not sign a bill to repeal the transportation funding law approved in July unless there is replacement revenue, such as an approved turnpike lease.

Gordner said his plan to lease the turnpike to as many as three companies could generate a one-time windfall of $20 billion to $30 billion for the state. With investments, it would translate to an estimated $1 billion annually for roads, bridges and mass transit during the next 50 years, he said.

The bill – SB1280 – is awaiting assignment to committee in the Senate.

In addition to the legislation offered by Gordner, the governor has his own plan to privatize the turnpike. Rendell said he soon will release the bids he received from companies interested in leasing the entire turnpike. Those bids are expected to bring in at least $1 billion annually for transportation.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson, also is expected to unveil a turnpike leasing bill.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Pennsylvania in 2008, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor