Tapping the pike without leasing

A plan likely to emerge this week would include bonds, higher tolls, and making I-80 a toll road.

Posted: June 18, 2007

A new plan to "monetize" the Pennsylvania Turnpike - without leasing the road - is likely to emerge in the state legislature this week.

Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.) is pushing a variation of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission's proposal to tap the value of the road without leasing it. In his version, the legislature would authorize the turnpike commission to issue bonds to generate $800 million a year for highway and transit spending, to be paid off with future turnpike toll increases and with the conversion of Interstate 80 across northern Pennsylvania to a toll road.

"It's not the ideal, but I don't know that the votes are there for the governor's plan," Fumo said.

Gov. Rendell wants to lease the turnpike to a private operator to generate $965 million a year for highways and bridge projects. He also has proposed a tax on oil company profits to raise $760 million a year for mass transit.

Fumo said his proposal would provide $400 million a year for highways, $350 million for transit, and $50 million in reserve. He said the legislation would establish annual increases to keep up with inflation.

About 70 percent of state transit funding typically goes to SEPTA, which faces a $129 million operating deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1. If SEPTA got 70 percent of $350 million, that would mean $245 million for the transit authority.

Under the Fumo plan, I-80 would not be converted into a toll road for three years, and toll increases on the turnpike would be deferred until 2010.

Fumo said the fact that his proposal would not require new taxes would be key in winning support in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The legislature faces a June 30 deadline for adopting a new budget.

"A lot of people, even in my caucus, want to go to heaven, but they don't want to die," Fumo said of the desire to fund transit without raising taxes.

County officials have urged legislators from suburban Philadelphia counties to oppose a lease.

In recent letters to local legislators, officials in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties said they opposed the turnpike lease and were more supportive of the turnpike commission's proposal to raise money by borrowing, adding $1 tolls in urban areas, and making I-80 a toll road. Fumo's plan does not include the urban surcharges.

Bucks County commissioners "have serious questions about the ability of privatization to meet the need for long-term sustainable funding for highways, bridges and transit, the impact on future tolls, the companion tolling of other roads, and the spillover effects on local roads of higher turnpike tolls," Lynn Bush, executive director of the Bucks County Planning Commission, said in a letter to legislators.

Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, said the city-suburban division was reflected among the nine Pennsylvania members on his commission's board.

"There is not a consensus among the players in the region," he said. Members of the commission supporting a lease included Philadelphia, the state Department of Transportation, Rendell's representative, and the governor's policy office, he said.

"They all agree on the need for additional funding . . . but we couldn't get to a single package that was agreeable to everyone," Seymour said.

So the commission sent a letter to legislators calling for prompt funding, without specifying how to raise the money.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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