Key Pa. Lawmaker Declares Turnpike Lease Plan Dead

Fri July 18, 2008 - Northeast Edition
Mark Scolforo - Associated Press




HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) The chairman of the state House Transportation Committee said July 4 that Gov. Ed Rendell’s plan to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike — in what would be the nation’s largest infrastructure deal — is essentially dead.

Rep. Joseph Markosek, D-Allegheny, said legislation that would authorize the proposed $12.8 billion lease will not get a vote in the committee he heads or on the House floor.

Markosek said there is very little support for the deal in the House and he believes it is time to focus on other aspects of state transportation policy.

“We’ve had extensive hearings,’’ he said. “The majority of members of the committee are dead set against the lease.’’

The Transportation Committee’s ranking Republican, Rendell’s office and the group that submitted the $12.8 billion bid all indicated they remained undaunted and hoped the Legislature would continue to examine the offer.

“We’re certainly disappointed in the chairman’s point of view, but we would hope that after an opportunity to debate the pros and cons of the issue, the Legislature will choose to consider the proposal in its fall session,’’ Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said.

But Markosek called it a bad financial deal that will not be worth pursuing even if the federal government does not give its approval to adding tolls to Interstate 80 under a law passed last summer.

“This is such an insufficient financial deal that even if we desperately need the money, this wouldn’t be the answer,’’ Markosek said.

“There is no realistic scenario under which this deal will happen,’’ he said.

Pennsylvania Transportation Partners, a group established by high bidders Abertis Infraestructuras of Spain and Citi Infrastructure Investors, are seeking to operate about 500 mi. of the turnpike system under a 75-year lease.

“I think [Abertis-Citi] made monumental gains in support this week,’’ said Rep. Rick Geist, R-Blair, the Transportation Committee’s minority chairman. “They were working the issue hard, both with Republicans and Democrats.’’

The billions such a lease would produce would be invested and the proceeds dedicated to help plug a $1.7 billion hole in the state’s annual needs for highways, bridges and mass transit.

Ardo said the administration still hoped to convince lawmakers to revive the initiative after they return from their two-month summer break, even though Markosek said that was highly unlikely.

Pennsylvania Transportation Partners spokesman Jim Courtovich said the group also intended to continue to push their offer, despite Markosek’s opposition.

“We feel very confident that there are many members of the General Assembly who are strongly interested in hearing about all the facts and details of the lease proposal,’’ he said. “And we’ll be having those conversations throughout the summer and looking forward to a vote in the fall when the Legislature returns.’’

Markosek said he hoped the Abertis-Citi group and others who expressed interest in the turnpike lease will help the state develop public-private partnerships to build new roads or projects that expand the capacity of existing roads.