Posts Tagged ‘state budgets’

Round and Round and Round the Toll Hike Wheel Goes. When It Will Finally Stop Nobody Knows

January 6, 2018

You might think that every penny that you pay to use a toll road would go toward the maintenance and operation of that road, including administrative expenses.

Maybe at one time it worked that way, but no longer. A toll road is an attractive cash cow to be milked by political officials for their pet projects or to pay expenses for which public funding is in short supply.

I’m not saying this is right, just that it is one of the many games that policy makers play in the budget making process.

For the 10th consecutive year tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike are increasing and a case could be made that the size of the hike is not entirely the doing of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

By law the Commission pays $450 million every year to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which uses that money to help fund public transportation as well as highway and bridge projects not involving the turnpike.

The Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission also diverts toll revenue to uses that do not directly involve the turnpike.

The game involves raiding pots of reliable and considerable revenue to fund programs tangentially related to the source of that revenue that are hard-pressed to pay for themselves.

It is all the better if much of the revenue from those pots comes from those who can’t vote against those doing the raiding.

Here is one example of how it works. Back in 2013, the Ohio Turnpike Commission sold $1 billion in bonds for capital improvements, agreeing to set aside $930 million of the proceeds to fund 10 transportation projects in Northern Ohio that do not directly involve the turnpike.

One of those is the Opportunity Corridor, a boulevard linking East 55th Street and University Circle in Cleveland.

Portions of that project have included upgrading facilities of the Greater Cleveland Regional
Transit Authority. The transportation elements of the Opportunity Corridor notwithstanding, it is an economic development project seeking to revive financially distressed Cleveland neighborhoods.

A Cleveland area resident sued the Turnpike Commission in federal court, arguing that diverting toll money for non-toll road projects violated state and federal law.

A judge disagreed, saying there is a “nexus” between the turnpike and other transportation projects because turnpike users will benefit from those projects.

Maybe so, yet I doubt that many New Jersey residents, for example, traveling to Chicago via the Ohio Turnpike will ever use the Opportunity Corridor’s spiffy boulevard.

For that matter, many users of the Pennsylvania Turnpike will never use public transportation in the Keystone State. But they are paying for it anyway, often without knowing it.

This is not to say that endeavors such as the Opportunity Corridor or public transportation are without merit and don’t deserve public funding.

Nor is it to say that the policy makers who created the Opportunity Corridor or decided that public transportation users should be subsidized by taxpayers who don’t use that service made poor decisions.

It is to wonder how long the annual toll increase merry-go-round can continue spinning before it breaks.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is wondering the same thing and has launched a review of the turnpike commission.

I’m not optimistic that any report that DePasquale issues is going to result in tolls being lowered on the turnpike let alone stopping the onward march of annual toll hikes.

The mandate that the Pennsylvania Turnpike underwrite some responsibilities of PennDOT is not the sole cause of that 6 percent hike that takes effect on Sunday.

At best that mandate simply adds to the size of the toll hike the turnpike probably would have imposed anyway even if every dime of it were to go directly to the turnpike.

The policy makers may pay lip service to DePasquale’s report and shave a few nickels and dimes here and there, but the allure of the cash cow and its daily torrent of toll-paying motorists is too irresistible to ignore as an answer to funding needs and the desires of policy makers without raising income taxes and sales taxes.

They’re simply raiding your wallet in other ways, including building automatic fee increases into toll roads every year in the belief that as much as you might gripe about the tolls you’ll continue to pay them because taking the toll road is more convenient than driving miles out of your way on two-lane highways without toll booths but which come with a multitude of traffic signals, lower speed limits and small town speed traps.

It is hard to love a highway that charges $7 upfront when you drive directly from the Ohio Turnpike onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Tomorrow it will cost you 45 cents more to enter Pennsylvania.

The Ohio Turnpike is also becoming more expensive. Back in 2013, the Turnpike Commission approved 2.7 percent toll hikes every year through 2023. It has learned well from its neighbor to the east.