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Pa. Turnpike Lease Declared Dead for 2008

Fri September 26, 2008 - Northeast Edition

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) Pennsylvania’s search for billions of dollars to patch up its transportation infrastructure was dealt a significant setback Sept. 19 when key leaders of the state Senate said a Pennsylvania Turnpike lease deal will not be approved this year.

“There is no support for taking it up in this fall session,’’ said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware. “And we should not rush into such a major policy decision under some sort of artificial deadline.’’

Gov. Ed Rendell and the plan’s other supporters recently called for speedy legislative action on the lease idea after federal regulators rejected a competing plan to raise transportation dollars by tolling Interstate 80.

The 75-year turnpike lease would include a $12.8 billion upfront payment to subsidize mass transit and repair the state’s crumbling bridges and roads.

Pileggi said he “can’t foresee any circumstances’’ in which the deal would go through the Senate this year.

His position was echoed by Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, the chamber’s president pro tempore.

“I believe the plan that’s on the table now for the turnpike is a bad deal for Pennsylvania,’’ Scarnati said. “I believe it’s too low.’’

Jim Courtovich, a spokesman for the group that submitted the highest bid, said the offer involved complicated financing and would probably be withdrawn after the second week in October. Despite the senators’ remarks, he said the partnership would continue to push for legislative approval.

“We respect the Senate leaders, of course, but we in no way see this as being over, and I think next week will be the test of that,’’ he said Sept. 19.

Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for the Democratic governor, said the turnpike lease should have been a priority in the closing months of the two-year legislative session.

“Clearly we are disappointed with the senators’ remarks, given the crisis that we face in transportation funding, and the concrete bid on the table that now would provide the necessary funding,’’ Ardo said.

There have been recent signs of some support in the Democratic-controlled state House, most notably from Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, and House Minority Leader Sam Smith, R-Jefferson.

Smith wrote in an op-ed column released Sept. 19 that “most states would sacrifice their first born to have an opportunity like this,’’ arguing that Pennsylvania should grab it.

“We are in an enviable situation and we have only two weeks to decide,’’ Smith wrote. “If we turn it down, it will not be back next year.’’

But Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, said that he “would be more than mildly surprised if action were taken,’’ particularly in light of opposition from two of his caucus’ leaders on transportation issues: Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Markosek, D-Allegheny, and Majority Whip Keith McCall, D-Carbon.

DeWeese said the state might want to try again for I-80 tolling approval next year after a new president is sworn in.

“My own view is that, in the Obama or McCain administration of ’09, this issue would be revisited. I think a different United States Department of Transportation will give this controversy an additional overview,’’ he said.

The Federal Highway Administration said recently that it turned down I-80 tolls, in part, because it had questions about whether the amount of money that would be paid by turnpike commission to the state Transportation Department was based on an “objective market valuation’’ of the highway.

Whether the turnpike lease is dead or only stalled, the short-term financial impact of the Legislature’s failure to act will not be significant. The turnpike commission, which would have operated the I-80 tolls, has already borrowed to pay the state $962 million for mass transit and road-and-bridge repairs under the July 2007 transportation bill.

If the tolls are never implemented, the turnpike’s payments to the state will decrease to $450 million annually in 2010-11. Those payments will be funded through turnpike toll rate increases of 25 percent next year and about 3 percent annually after that.

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