Sincerely Delusional

Bill Wilson / November 19, 2010

It’s first class if you spend 42 cents to do it all right.

By sending the Pennsylvania Turnpike a letter demanding a $472 million payment, I can think of several words to follow that extra-legroom status, but the only positive one is stamp.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) believes it is only doing what the law has deemed as the 24-karat golden rule. Back in 2007, Pennsylvania state legislators passed Act 44, which required the Turnpike to fork over $922 million a year, starting in 2010, for transportation projects across the state. However, the $472 million belly of that piggy bank was supposed to be filled with money coming from the tolling of I-80.

Applications were filed and postmarked to the U.S. DOT, twice, and the highway agency treated both deliveries like a pipe bomb. Because a portion of the toll revenue was listed to go toward projects outside the maintenance and upkeep of I-80, the U.S. DOT refused to touch it.

Following the rejection, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell launched a frantic search for the missing $472 million that had the pulse of a witch hunt. He was obsessed at throwing a net over a solution and marching it in front of the entire population of Pennsylvania. The state legislature was urged to conduct special sessions and to do everything short of stuffing a sleeping bag into their briefcase in case an impasse resulted in an all-nighter. However, the dawning of the election season quickly forced the issue into slumber, and at press time Rendell’s flaming torch of action had been reduced to a charred piece of failure.

In the meantime, PennDOT still finds it necessary to defend Act 44 and continues to put this absurdity into writing, even when the Pennsylvania governor himself believes the letters should be classified as junk mail. The Turnpike is not wasting a push-pin posting it to the agency bulletin board, either, and is refusing to pay.

“Unless someone forces us to do this, we’re not going to do this,” Turnpike Commissioner CEO Joe Brimmeier said. “The Turnpike doesn’t have independent money. They’re not a bank.”

“I think the Turnpike happens to be right and PennDOT happens to be wrong,” replied Rendell.

Whether it wants to or not, the Turnpike has made the independent decision to raise tolls 3% for E-ZPass users and 10% for cash customers starting in 2011. The move is a reflection of the financial atmosphere of the highway authority, which is being exposed to the harmful rays of a decaying economy. The effort to serve motorists is certainly there. The Turnpike has engaged in perhaps one of the biggest highway construction projects of all time in the Mon Fayette Expressway, which includes a pair of massive bridges over the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. The dream is to extend the thoroughfare all the way into Pittsburgh, but the Turnpike’s Herculean effort will soon be reduced to the workings similar to that of the Greek God of Aether. Air will rule over all else in the project war chest.

Do I believe PennDOT will ultimately stamp a lawsuit onto this debacle? No, but I hope by now the letters have stopped. Both agencies need to put a solution down on paper once and for all. And since Act 44 was contingent on the tolling of I-80, which was pronounced dead, twice, Pennsylvania lawmakers need to abolish or suspend the measure until the new state legislature gets settled in 2011. If they were too nervous about discussing an increase in fees as Election Day beckoned, then they at least should have the political decency to do that—and show some class.

About the Author

Bill Wilson is Editorial Director for Roads & Bridges. He can be reached at [email protected] or 847/391-1029.

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