From the President's Desk: PA's Looming Transportation Crisis

March 29, 2019


By Stacie Reidenbaugh

The Commonwealth faces a potentially catastrophic crisis in transportation and turnpike funding.

Every year, the Turnpike Commission pays $450 million from toll revenue to PENNDOT for transit projects. The majority of the $450 million is allocated each year as follows:

           $232 million to SEPTA

           $76 million to the Port Authority of Allegheny County

           $8 million to $9 million on Amtrak’s Keystone and Pennsylvanian routes, which connect Philadelphia to New York City, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh

           Portions of the revenue also support transportation programs and projects statewide, including disabled and senior services.

The Turnpike Commission is more than $11 billion in debt, of which $6 billion is related to the commission’s obligations for transit funding. The obligation of payments to the state will sunset in 2022 and drop to $50 million, but turnpike tolls will continue to increase through 2044 to cover debt service.

At the core of the financial crisis, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is facing a major lawsuit, first filed last March from national trucking groups and a motorist association arguing that the practice of allocation of funds to PennDOT to fund transit projects around the state is unconstitutional and that tolls may only be used for turnpike-related projects. The plaintiffs are seeking a refund of $6 billion of PA Turnpike tolls collected since 2007, when the initial legislation authorizing the transfer of turnpike revenue was enacted.

Due to the lawsuit, the Turnpike has missed three scheduled payments to PennDOT in 2019 and the April payment will likely be missed as well. The suit also prevents the Commission from raising bond funding over the past year needed to make the payments to the state.

At the House Appropriations budget hearing last month, PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards testified that if the payments are not resumed, or if a decision in the ongoing court case is unfavorable to PennDOT, significant budget cuts would be necessary at the start of the new fiscal year July 1. Those cuts would impact subsidies to regional transit agencies across the Commonwealth, and Sec. Richards specifically noted that Harrisburg, Williamsport, and Scranton could be more adversely affected, as well as programs serving transportation needs of the disabled and the elderly.

The suit against the Turnpike Commission has already led to $63 million in cuts for SEPTA’s capital budget in this fiscal year and forced delays in 37 capital and system improvement projects.

If the suit is decided in favor of the Turnpike, the missed payments will be caught up. However, if the courts decides to uphold the suit, the results could be devastating.

But wait, that’s not all. For many years, significant revenues from the Motor License Fund, generated by state gasoline tax as well as drivers' license and registration fees, helped to cover the costs of Pennsylvania State Police to provide full- and part-time police coverage to a growing number of communities across the state. The justification was that troopers were patrolling state roads, although in many cases they were filling gaps in communities that decided to shutter their local police departments or withdraw from shared service agreements due to local funding constraints.

In the 2017-18 budget process, the Legislature capped the portion of the fund going to the state police at $801 million, with a plan to decrease that amount by 4 percent until it reaches $500 million in 2027-28. While this change channels $2.1 billion back into much needed road and infrastructure improvements, it still amounts to millions of dollars that would otherwise fund transportation projects.

Earlier this week, the new Senate and House Transportation Committee Chairs led a call to action to address the surmounting challenges of the state’s transportation system. Sen. Kim Ward, (R-Westmoreland County) announced that she has convened a legislative working group to evaluate options to end the turnpike’s transfer payments to PennDOT and develop a plan for public transportation. Afterward, another working group will be formed to identify ways to reduce the use of Motor License Fund revenues as funding for state police.

PENN LIVE- PA faces transportation headaches and the cures are likely to cost us more 

In a few major metro regions around the state, officials are working to identify opportunities to self-fund regional transit systems and wean themselves off reliance on state subsidies.

An important court decision this week could be good news for the Turnpike. A similar lawsuit was filed in 2016 by American Trucking Associations against the state of New York. On Wednesday, a federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of the lawsuit, ruling that New York State Thruway Authority had the right to use toll revenue collected from commercial truckers to maintain upstate canals based on an obscure 1991 federal law.

As a long-time advocate of responsible transportation funding, 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania is monitoring the current situation and will continue to provide updates. We are a founding member and actively involved in the Keystone Transportation Funding Coalition (KTFC), a diverse group of transportation advocates supporting one simple goal: to secure a comprehensive, long-term, multimodal solution to Pennsylvania’s transportation funding needs.

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