Battle gears up over Pa. Turnpike lease

July 29, 2008
The Philadelphia Inquirer

The legislature may be on vacation, but there’s no rest for the combatants in the battle over a lease of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Opponents and supporters of the lease plan are busy lobbying in Harrisburg, Washington and the rural reaches of Pennsylvania in preparation for what they expect to be a furious finale in September.

The Spanish-U.S. consortium that wants to lease the turnpike for $12.8 billion is touting additional billions that it says it will fork over to Pennsylvania in taxes.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, which wants to keep control of the turnpike and put tolls on Interstate 80, is pointing to the nearly $1 billion that it will have funneled to highway and transit projects by the end of this week.

And congressmen on both sides are weighing in on what could be a crucial decision: the federal ruling on Pennsylvania’s application to toll I-80. A decision could be made by the Federal Highway Administration within three weeks, in time to affect the legislative wrangling in Harrisburg.

Gov. Rendell, who has a foot in both camps, said he believes the hopes for leasing the turnpike ride on that forthcoming decision by the federal government.

“I think it depends on the I-80 tolling application,” he said yesterday. “If they turn us down, I think there’s a very good chance of passing the turnpike lease.”

Rendell said he would prefer to lease the turnpike, but he also endorsed the I-80 tolling plan in a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, asking for “prompt, favorable consideration.”

He said yesterday that he thought the lease arrangement would produce more money for the state and leave I-80 a free road – for now.

Tolling I-80 “could be held for somewhere down the road,” Rendell said.

Rendell, speaking to reporters about the need for more money for highway bridges, said more tolled highways should be part of the financial solution.

Rendell’s proposal to lease the turnpike faces stiff opposition in the legislature.

The consortium that wants to pay the state $12.8 billion for the right to operate the turnpike for 75 years is now touting additional benefits that it says the state would get.

In addition to the upfront payment, the state would receive $3.3 billion to $4.2 billion in corporate income taxes and $5.5 billion worth of improvements to the turnpike, the consortium says. The companies that make up the consortium – Abertis Infraestructuras S.A., of Barcelona and Citi Infrastructure Investors of New York – say that if the lease is rejected, Pennsylvania “loses $12.8 billion immediately and billions more over time.”

The Turnpike Commission, meanwhile, cites the nearly $1 billion that it has borrowed in the past year to give to statewide transportation projects. The payments are required by Act 44, the transportation-funding law passed last year.

Over the next 50 years, the Turnpike Commission says it will pay $67.8 billion to PennDOT for statewide transportation projects.

The Turnpike Commission would fund its statewide spending with the income from tolls on I-80 and higher tolls on the turnpike.

Seven Democratic members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation sent a letter last week to Peters, asking her to approve the I-80 tolls: U.S. Reps. John Murtha, Tim Holden, Allyson Schwartz, Joe Sestak, Robert Brady, Chaka Fattah and Mike Doyle.

Their letter said “Pennsylvania’s state leaders should be the primary decision-makers regarding this plan and . . . the federal government should not second guess their decisions.”

Two Republican congressmen from northwest Pennsylvania have been active in the battle against tolls on I-80. U.S. Rep. Phil English last week talked to Peters, urging her to reject the state’s application, and Rep. John Peterson is to meet with Peters tomorrow.