On Oct. 29 the Turnpike Commission submitted a third application to toll Interstate 80. In the wake of this re-submission, the question must be asked: how can a state agency that has been so susceptible to corruption and dubious activity be entrusted with more responsibility?
I served in the state Senate for 12 years and saw firsthand how the Turnpike Commission is the Senate's patronage pit. It is a cauldron of corruption. In order to generate the money we need for roads and bridges, the General Assembly should start by folding the Turnpike Commission into PennDOT, saving Pennsylvania taxpayers millions of dollars and making the administration of the Turnpike efficient.
As the Federal Highway Administration once again considers turning Interstate 80 over to the Turnpike Commission, take a look at the Commission's 2009 highlights so far.
In March, Turnpike Commission Chairman Mitchell Rubin was fired after it was revealed that he had accepted a bogus contract from now imprisoned Vincent Fumo. Additionally, Rubin's wife, Ruth Arnao, was convicted of 45 counts of corruption and is now serving time.
On Sept. 1, former Turnpike Labor Relations Manager Donald Kovac filed a civil lawsuit against the Turnpike Commission. Kovac alleges he was terminated by the Commission after he refused to reinstate a politically connected toll booth worker - a worker who had been accused of physically assaulting a motorist during an altercation. This case is pending in federal court.
On Oct. 20, S. Michael Palermo, a former Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission staffer, pleaded guilty to mail-fraud conspiracy in connection with a no-work contract that paid him $287,000 between 1999 and 2004. Palermo was also on the Turnpike payroll for two years at $120,000 a year.
Now we learn that the PTC is part of an ongoing federal investigation related to several highway projects. One of the projects the FBI is looking into is a current $181 million endeavor in the Valley Forge area that was originally bid at $90 million. The Turnpike has yet to clarify the reason for this gigantic increased cost to taxpayers. At least one Turnpike employee has been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury.
In addition to the federal investigation, Attorney General Tom Corbett is now overseeing a statewide grand jury investigating possible links between political donations and Turnpike contracts.
One state lawmaker recently described the Turnpike as "the most inept government agency" he knows, and the news over the past year only reaffirms his opinion.
Most recently, on Nov. 18, Brian Chase, an independent infrastructure finance expert, testified regarding the recent market valuation of I-80 - one of the linchpins of the Turnpike's application. The valuation was done by Provident Capital Advisors LLC, an obscure firm from Louisiana.
Mr. Chase cited several problems with the Turnpike choosing Provident rather than a highly reputable investment banking firm. Problems include a lack of independence, an unproven track record in roadway market valuation, and no competitive process for the opportunity to perform the analysis. Although invited, no representatives from Provident, the PTC or PennDOT attended the hearing. This is not the transparency that Pennsylvanians deserve.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has denied the Turnpike's application twice. Approving the application this time around and enormously expanding the Turnpike, amidst federal and state investigations, would be an egregious display of irresponsible public policy.
Tolling Interstate 80 is an insidious scheme developed by a well-connected lobbying firm on the Turnpike's behalf. It is a regional solution to a statewide problem that will cripple the economy of Central and Northern Pennsylvania and inevitably burden the entire state.
Yes, we need more money for our roads and bridges, but doing so at the expense of increasing the Turnpike's power is not an option. Pennsylvania needs to pursue other transportation funding options in a transparent process with public input.
Former Congressman John Peterson, a leader in the fight to keep I-80 toll free, is a supporter of the Alliance to Stop I-80 Tolling. Additional information can be found online at www.noI80tolls.com.