Auditor General Jack Wagner is right in sounding an alarm about the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission's mounting debt resulting from a 2007 law.
In an effort to create more transportation funding, the General Assembly passed and Gov. Ed Rendell signed Act 44 of 2007, which required annual payments - originally envisioned to be nearly $1 billion - from the commission to the state.
While the money for the payments would be borrowed initially, it was to be repaid by raising existing tolls and turning Interstate 80 into a toll road.
But when the federal government balked on tolling I-80, that part of Act 44 vanished, as did about half of the annual payment that was supposed to go to the state.
But the commission still was saddled with the obligation of providing $450 million a year to the state for transportation.
That's been accomplished largely by the commission going deeper in debt and increasing fares.
The commission's debt has increased from $2.1 billion in 2007 to $7.3 billion this year. The 50 years of payments required under Act 44 are expected to add $20 billion in debt for the turnpike, Wagner said earlier this year.
That's a big obligation that could fall back on taxpayers if the commission becomes insolvent or if the state would eliminate the commission.
Turnpike Commission CEO Roger Nutt told lawmakers last week that the agency doesn't see a problem as long as it continues the annual toll increases.
But what happens if toll increases become too much for drivers and they choose other roads instead? The commission said it doesn't see that becoming a problem.
Wagner takes the opposite view.
PA Independent reports he told a joint hearing of the House and Senate transportation committees that the Pennsylvania Turnpike likely will become the nation's most expensive toll road when the tolls increase again in January.
Since 2007, tolls have risen 31 percent for EZ-Pass users and 44 percent for those paying cash, PA Independent reports.
Because the turnpike is such an important traffic artery through our region and is a key connector with I-99, concerns about tolls and traffic volume carry extra importance to our region. In addition, if Wagner's right and motorists begin to avoid the turnpike, it could mean much heavier traffic on secondary roads across Pennsylvania, possibly resulting in more congestion and accidents.
A number of state lawmakers, including House Transportation Committee Chairman Rick Geist, R-Altoona, and Senate Transportation Minority Chairman John Wozniak, D-Cambria, acknowledged to PA Independent that Act 44 needs to be revised.
We agree. Unfortunately given the upcoming election, that's not going to happen for at least another year and perhaps longer.
For that reason, Wagner needs to continue being at the forefront in raising concerns about the turnpike's debt and required toll increases. If he and Pennsylvanians speak loudly enough, perhaps state lawmakers will find a way to head off this problem before it becomes a crisis.
That would be a welcome change from the way state government normally operates.