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Development & Transportation

PA Auditor: Turnpike Finances Are Bleak

Doug Kerr

Pennsylvania’s auditor general is painting a no-win picture with his most recent audit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

While Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the turnpike is doing well when it comes to controlling spending and managing its money, he said there are structural problems in place that could eventually lead to the collapse not only of the turnpike, but also of much of the state’s transportation system.

Since 2007, state law has required the turnpike send $450 million annually to the state department of transportation. PennDOT then uses that money to support mass transit, including the Port Authority of Allegheny County.

DePasquale said to keep that up through 2022, after which the payment drops to $50 million, the Turnpike is counting on some unrealistic forecasts.

“They’re relying on the ability to make their payments on increasing tolls by 215 percent and increasing ridership by 44 percent,” DePasquale said. “There’s just no way that’s going to work.”

DePasquale said it is especially unrealistic given the fact that the turnpike has cut back on construction and maintenance. The auditor general said he thinks motorists will find other routes.

Not only could that put the Turnpike further into debt, it could overload state highways not intended to carry such high volumes of cars and trucks.

“If they fall apart financially, it’s going to have disastrous consequence for the entire state,” DePasquale said.

Payments to PennDOT will drop to $50 million in 2023, which DePasquale called a light at the end of the tunnel.

“However, it could mean darker days for the entire commonwealth as the dollars that are critical for public transit agencies simply won’t be there because it will be an economic, and to be blunt, human disaster, if we don’t have these viable public transit agencies all over Pennsylvania,” DePasquale said.

The auditor did point out that he does not think the turnpike should be responsible for the additional $400 million. Instead, he said the state legislature should find a solution.

In the short term, DePasquale is calling on legislators to pass laws that would help the turnpike collect $43 million in unpaid tolls annually. Currently the turnpike can send a bill to a motorist who avoids a toll by driving through the EZ-Pass gate but does not have a transponder. However, there is no mechanism in state law to force the payment.

Other states require skipped toll payments from motorists before they can renew their registration.

Turnpike Commission Chairman Sean Logan said he agreed with DePasquale’s findings.

“Our mounting debt, due largely to payments to PennDOT as mandated by state law, is a growing concern, and we are taking steps to address that challenge,” Logan said in a written statement. "We look forward to working with the auditor as well as the legislature to secure passage of meaningful tolling enforcement legislation that will allow all tolling agencies in the state to make sure motorists pay their fair share."