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Indebted State Turnpike Could Be Headed For ‘Catastrophic’ Reckoning

Matt Slocum

Lawmakers grilled state transportation officials over the turnpike’s ongoing funding issues in a budget hearing Tuesday.

The Turnpike Commission is behind on payments to the state amid a lawsuit over its rising tolls.

Every year, the commission pays $450 million to the state for transit projects. To afford it, it's hiked tolls around 200 percent in the last decade and taken on a lot of debt.

Even when the payments scale down in 2022, tolls will have to keep rising.

Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards—who sits on the Turnpike Commission board—said there is so much debt that the turnpike would have to hike tolls every year until 2044 to pay it.

“The total turnpike debt is over $11 billion,” Richards said, noting $6 billion of that is related to the commission’s obligations to the state. “Half of their payments now are toward debt service. In a few years that percentage, I think, goes up to almost 70 percent of their budget.”

Last year, two groups that represent truckers and drivers sued, arguing turnpike tolls are too high and the commonwealth is violating federal law by using the money for non-turnpike projects.

Since then, the turnpike stopped issuing debt and has missed three payments to the state. Now, lawmakers are asking what will happen if commission loses the lawsuit and potentially has to pay back its toll money.

Richards said she doesn’t know exactly, but it wouldn’t be good.

“We have to start talking about what that would mean. It would be catastrophic to have to pay back $6 billion dollars right away,” she said.

The missed payments have already prompted the transportation department to put a lot of projects on hold.

Richards said if the lawsuit isn’t resolved by the time a new fiscal year starts in July, a subsidy to Amtrak will likely be halved and transit in many cities will see cuts.  

She named Harrisburg, Williamsport, Scranton as three of the cities that will be most affected, because their budgets are already operating on a “thin line.”

Studies of potential new transit projects n Pittsburgh, Johnstown, and Scranton will also stop automatically, Richards said. There won’t be money to finish them or act on their recommendations.