Relieve Pressure On Turnpike Tolls

April 6, 2019 GMT

That stiff breeze you felt Thursday wasn’t the wind; it was a massive sigh of relief exhaled from the state Capitol. U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane relieved state lawmakers of having to come up with potentially billions of dollars, when she dismissed a lawsuit that had been brought by truckers against the Pennsylvania Turnpike. After failing three times to establish tolls on Interstate 80 as a means to fund highway construction and transit, the Legislature in 2007 required the Turnpike Commission to provide $900 million a year. It later amended that to require $450 million and dedicated it to transit. Since then, the turnpike has turned over $6 billion, and has increased tolls in 11 consecutive years to pay for that, the costs of related debt and for the turnpike’s own projects. Kane found that the arrangement did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause, contrary to the truckers’ claims that the resultant costs restricted the right to travel. She also rejected the truckers’ argument that state and federal law precluded the turnpike from using toll revenue to pay off nonturnpike-related debt. If the industry had prevailed, the Legislature might have had to come up with $6 billion to cover the costs incurred by the turnpike, and $450 million a year for transit subsidies. The plaintiffs plan to appeal. But regardless of whether they prevail, their point is valid as a practical matter — the toll structure mandated by the Legislature is unsustainable. State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale recently reported that the turnpike commission has $11.4 billion in debt, $6 billion of which is attributable to the 2007 mandate. Lawmakers must not take the reprieve as absolution. They should use it as a grant of extra time to correct the policy by finding other sources of revenue for mass transit. There are many possibilities, from closing the Delaware loophole that enables corporate tax evasion to establishing a fair tax on natural gas extraction. Turnpike CEO Mark Compton also asked the lawmakers for reform, saying the suit “ propelled our burdensome funding obligation to the commonwealth ... into the limelight, revealing an unsustainable obligation. ... The fact is we cannot continue down this path unless something changes.” Having survived the lawsuit’s scare, at least for now, legislators should move aggressively to relieve the pressure on turnpike tolls.