Turnpike ‘cesspool’ has taken heavy toll

“The Turnpike is what it is because the General Assembly wants it to be that way. Over the years, despite all of these disclosures, despite all of these audits and newspaper articles, despite all of the desires to make it better. It continues. It persists.”

– Witness before grand jury investigating alleged corruption involving politicians and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission

A grand jury presentment resulted in charges against a former state Senate leader, three former top Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission officials and four others is really an indictment of a corrupt system that politicians of both parties have used to further their own ends.

While the timing of the investigation and the resulting charges might have put the main focus on Democrats, almost assuredly similar allegations to some degree could have been lodged when Republicans previously were in charge.

The investigation was started in 2009 when Gov. Tom Corbett was attorney general and then was passed onto his hand-picked successor and finally to Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat.

While the investigation is ongoing, Kane noted during a press conference on Wednesday, there is an eight-year statute of limitations in investigating these matters.

The reality is both parties have perpetuated the current system because they were able to make it benefit them. The grand jury reports noted several witnesses testified decisions regarding contracts and jobs typically follow the 60-40 rule where the party in power gets 60 percent and the minority gets 40 percent.

But even that 40 percent is substantial. The commission’s capital plan calls for expenditures of $6.7 billion over the next 10 years.

That’s going to provide a lot of incentives by politicians and power brokers to maintain the status quo.

In an ideal world, the grand jury report and the resulting criminal charges filed last week would lead to the politically tainted Turnpike Commission being abolished and its duties absorbed by PennDOT.

That almost certainly will not happen for two big reasons.

First, absent a firestorm of outrage from voters, which we have not seen, state lawmakers will not want to upset their apple cart. Over the years, they have seen how they can pluck goodies for themselves, and they’re not going to give that up without a major fight.

Second, state lawmakers have put the Turnpike Commission so deeply in debt that abolishing the agency is all but impossible.

Under the 1937 law that created the Turnpike Commission, once its debts were paid off, the roads were to be turned over to the state and the agency abolished. By allowing the commission to continue to be in debt, politicians have ensured its survival for 75 years.

And Act 44 of 2007 has virtually assured that Pennsylvanians will be dealing with the Turnpike Commission for generations to come. Act 44 requires the commission to provide huge annual payments – currently $450 million a year – through 2057 to PennDOT for transportation projects elsewhere.

But because the commission doesn’t have that much money lying around, it must borrow it, further ensuring the agency’s survival by increasing its debt. The agency’s debt has risen from $2.5 billion in 2007 to $7.8 billion in 2012 and will continue to climb at a staggering pace. Even the annual toll increases can’t raise enough to avoid more borrowing by the commission.

If we cannot get rid of the commission, then it’s incumbent on Pennsylvanians to demand that our elected officials drain this cesspool of its political taint.

They could do this by prohibiting turnpike commissioners from being involved with political campaigns. Turnpike commissioners and employees should be prohibited from soliciting campaign donations or using information, equipment or paid time from their work for political purposes.

Decisions on awarding contracts should be made by professionals with expertise in that area within the commission, and commissioners should be prohibited from trying to influence the decisions. The commissioners should set policy and hire a professional staff to run the agency, free of political influence.

And an independent oversight office should be created to investigate and recommend criminal or civil action if wrongdoing is suspected.

Pennsylvania might not be in position financially to eliminate the Turnpike Commission, but it can remove the corrupting political influence that has eaten away at the integrity of the agency.