In a bid to raise desperately needed highway construction and maintenance funds, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is canvassing the private sector to determine the potential value of leasing or privatizing the Pennsylvania Turnpike, along with studying the pluses and minuses of such a move.
“For years, Pennsylvania has endured a transportation funding crisis with no feasible, comprehensive solution that is based on an analysis of all available options,” said Gov. Edward Rendell (D). “There are dozens of ideas that have been proposed over the years, including leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Before we pursue this or any other plan to solve the transportation crisis, we need to learn more about the lease option and how much revenue it could generate.”
The state is also taking steps to make sure private firms would take measures to protect the public from excessive toll increases, as well as ways to protect turnpike users and employees, before privatization would occur
“The Turnpike is a valuable asset that was built by public employees and paid for by motorists,” said Rendell. “If in the future we decide that changing the way it is managed is valuable enough to Pennsylvania, we should definitely consider it.”
“Though the protection of the public will be our number one priority, we must consider [privatization] if we are to keep toll rates reasonable and generate enough money to make major improvements in our state’s transportation system without burdensome tax increases,” he continued.
The specter of higher tolls is what worries highway users—especially truckers—the most about privatization.
“We strongly oppose the lease or sale of existing toll roads, bridges or tunnels to private parties,” said Bill Graves, president & CEO of the American Trucking Association (ATA). “We call on government to abandon these financing techniques, which generate revenue at great expense to the trucking industry and taxpayers and with potential negative impacts on highway safety, security and the motoring public.”
Graves said the trucking industry would rather aim for a toll-free national highway system where funds to finance highway improvement primarily come from highway user fees, such as fuel taxes. “Policymakers have to ask if it’s worth the economic risk and loss of control in determining the future use, renovation and expansion of our nation’s vital strategic assets, of which highway infrastructure may be of greatest importance,” he noted. “We oppose these financing schemes as they offer a short-term windfall but a long-term recipe for disaster.”
Lisa Mullings, president & CEO of NATSO (National Association of Truck Stop Operators) said that tolls represent a system of double taxation for truckers, who already pay 40% of all highway user fees. Tolls also divert traffic onto secondary roads that are not equipped to handle this traffic, resulting in higher accident rates and damage to these secondary roads.
“Public roads should be controlled and maintained by government, not leased to the private sector,” Mullings said. “The development and maintenance of roads is a fundamental government responsibility, too important to be delegated to and controlled by private or foreign interests.”
Still, Pennsylvania plans to forge ahead with its exploratory study, requesting submissions from the private sector by no later than December 22.
“There is a tremendous amount of expertise already developed for other states that have chosen to lease or privatize their turnpike operations,” said Allen Biehler, Pennsylvania’s secretary of transportation. “We want to draw on that expertise and learn as much as we can from a broad range of interested firms about how these arrangements could be structured to benefit Pennsylvanians.”