Pa. lading turnpike with debt

News that turnpike tolls will go up 6 percent in January was neither a surprise nor welcome.

The toll increase — which, like state pension contributions — are going nowhere but up in the coming years, largely because of shortsighted decisions years ago by lawmakers and the governor.

Not only we, but also our children and grandchildren, will bear the ever-increasing cost for their folly.

And just like the immense state’s pension shortfall, which snowballed because state officials failed to provide the needed funding, so is the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s debt that will require ever-increasing tolls to stay afloat.

The toll increases are not being driven by the costs to maintain the toll roads. The increases are needed because the Turnpike Commission has had to borrow billions of dollars to fulfill a 2007 mandate to give PennDOT hundreds of million of dollars a year, largely for mass transit.

Back then, Gov. Ed Rendell and legislators trying to shore up funding for PennDOT devised a plan to ask the federal government to make I-80 a toll road and required the Turnpike Commission to fork over close to $1 billion annually from the proceeds.

But the federal government said no to the tolling idea, blowing an immense hole in the funding plan.

Lawmakers didn’t want to risk the fallout of actually solving the problem, so they tweaked what the turnpike had to fork over, setting the state down the road of endless toll increases. And because the serious pain was years away, they escaped the blowback.

In the first three years, the commission had to hand over $2.5 billion. Since then, the turnpike has sent $450 million annually to PennDOT, for a grand total of $6.1 billion over 11 years.

Those $450 million annual payments are supposed to drop to $50 million in 2022 and continue at that level through 2057. But for that to happen, lawmakers will have to come up with another funding source. Their track record doesn’t fill us with confidence. It certainly wasn’t addressed in the latest budget.

And even if that were to happen, tolls are expected to increase 3 to 6 percent each year through 2044 — yippee.

In the coming weeks, legislative and gubernatorial candidates will be asking for your vote. It would be a good idea to ask them how they will eliminate the need for annual turnpike toll hikes and provide funds for PennDOT.

But don’t hold your breath for an answer — not unless those seeking office can pave the way to foist the cost onto future generations when they’ll be retired with their state pensions.

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