While it wouldn’t happen in the near future, a new bill could put the Pennsylvania Turnpike into new hands.
State Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion) has introduced legislation to abolish the Turnpike Commission and turn over operation of the toll road to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT). The bill comes in response to the 44-month grand jury investigation that culminated in charges in March against eight individuals.
Former Democratic state Sen. Bob Mellow, former Turnpike Commission CEO Joe Brimmeier, four other former Turnpike officials and two men who had contracts with the roadway were indicted. They’re accused of operating a scheme that linked bribes and political contributions from vendors to getting contracts from the turnpike commission.
Turnpike CEO Mark Compton said the commission, as well as its partners, need to follow a proper code of conduct in the future.
“The indictment showed there are two sides to a bribe, if you will,” he said. “And then so we need to make our business partners also understand our rules and follow our rules.”
The main issue with merging the two agencies involves the turnpike commission’s $7.5 billion in debt. PennDOT officials have previously resisted a merger as the debt would negatively impact the state’s bond rating.
While the measure would establish a committee comprising the governor, state treasurer, auditor general, House speaker and Senate president pro tempore to fix the debt, Compton believes the debt issue, among others, is too big to be surmounted.
“We haven’t had a transportation bill in 16 years,” he said. “So, the likelihood of that happening under a system that would be dictated by the legislature — I’m not sure what happens to the debt structure, the cost of the debt and no one wants to raise rates on the ratepayers, I assure you.”
Regardless of the legislation’s future, Compton said he will fix what he can within the commission. He said he doesn’t need legislation to fix redundancies.
“We don’t need to have two piles of salt, so to speak,” he said. “So, we’re working on that redundancy and have been for the past two years. We need to continue to do so on things like engineering, on things like software purchases, and on things like equipment, which we can be sharing, and those things.”