Auditor says PA Turnpike 'too liberal' with free rides, perks

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | Wednesday, January 09, 2013

A perk that gives employees and vendors a free pass on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is too liberal, Auditor General Jack Wagner says. An audit by Wagner highlights $7.7 million in “free” turnpike trips, including personal travel, for employees, consultants, contractors and state government officials in a recent four-year period.

Wagner highlighted six findings in an audit released to the public on Wednesday, Jan. 8.

“Wagner’s auditors found that the turnpike’s liberal and inadequate policy of providing toll-free rides to turnpike employees and vendors, not only for business but for personal travel as well, amounted to 7,000 free rides and at least $7.7 million in lost toll revenue between January 2007 and August 2011,” the report stated.

A second finding – one that Wagner says has cost the taxpayer $109 million – involves financial dealings by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission known as interest-rate swaps. Wagner attributes the losses to risky financial planning.

Last year, Wagner said the turnpike was “drowning in debt,” something turnpike leadership denies.

Acting Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission CEO Craig R. Shuey says the audit finds, in general terms, that the toll road is being managed responsibly, but he acknowledged there is room for reforms.

“The topic areas of the audit findings and recommendations … suggest that the Turnpike is a well-run operation given our areas of responsibility, breadth of geographic coverage and age of the system,” Shuey stated in response to Wagner. “While we disagree necessarily upon the weight of each of your recommendations, it is clear to me that when system safety and provision of services are considered, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is performing as should be expected.”

The commission has been caught between a rock and a hard place in recent years, but it’s the tollway users – especially cash-paying customers – who end up paying the price.

A 2007 state law known as Act 44 requires the commission to pay the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation $450 million each year to fund non-turnpike-related transportation projects, including mass transit in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

To meet its Act 44 obligations, the commission has raised tolls every year since Act 44’s passage. And in a move to get more people using E-ZPass, the commission is hitting cash customers with higher increases. The agency hopes to move to an all-cashless system in the not-too-distant future.

OOIDA has repeatedly called for Act 44 to be repealed to end the diversion of turnpike funds for non-turnpike projects.

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