The future of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is a hot topic again, one month after state prosecutors charged former Senate Democratic Leader Robert J. Mellow and seven others with a pay-to-play scheme involving contracts and campaign contributions at the agency.
A group of House Republican lawmakers is reviving legislation to eliminate the commission and make it part of the Transportation Department.
A pending bill would create a Bureau of Toll Administration within the department and give the state treasurer authority to issue turnpike bonds, according to a legislative memo by Rep. Donna Oberlander, R-63, Clarion. There is little interest in getting rid of the commission in the Senate, however.
The turnpike commission is described by critics as an inefficient and costly operation that has served for decades as a patronage haven and political cash cow. Others say the agency has undergone a major transformation for the better during the past two years.
The state grand jury report that led to corruption charges against Mellow, of Archbald, and former top turnpike officials said the agency operated during the investigatory period from 2002 to 2010, under the "60/40" rule. This signified the percentage split in contracts or jobs between the political party holding the majority and the minority party. The commission has been corrupted by secret gifts of cash, travel and entertainment and political contributions from vendors rewarded with multi-million dollar contracts, the grand jury report said.
Because the Senate confirms gubernatorial nominees to the commission by a two-thirds vote, it has historically exerted a great deal of power over the Turnpike, the grand jury report said.
House GOP lawmakers sponsored initial bills to eliminate the commission citing corruption problems in 2009-10, but cutting spending and making government more efficient were also goals of the caucus. During this period, former Gov. Ed Rendell pursued a plan to lease operation of the turnpike to a commercial firm as a way to generate new transportation revenue, but that idea faded with the recession.
"I don't believe there is any sentiment in the Senate to consider any merger," Sen. John Gordner, R-27, Berwick, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, told the Scranton Times-Tribune.
Gordner sponsored a bill in 2008 to privatize the Turnpike's business operations.
He said the mandate under a 2007 state law that the turnpike make an annual payment to help meet the state transportation network's funding needs has left the agency deep in debt, forced to hike tolls on an annual basis and a poor candidate for a merger.
"There is substantial debt as a result of Act 44," he said. "It does not make much sense to merge debt into PennDOT."
Moody's Investors Services last week downgraded the bonds' rating from A1 to Aa3 on $3.1 billion in Turnpike bonds. Moody's said the move reflects the commission's need for toll increases and more borrowing.
Gordner said the commission's new management working with Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch has made needed reforms and produced cost savings since Gov. Tom Corbett took office. One initiative involves joint stockpiling by the two agencies of winter road maintenance supplies.
Gordner pointed out that no one currently running the turnpike was charged with crimes. Turnpike Commissioner J. William Lincoln, who testified before the grand jury under a grant of immunity, resigned his post last month. Following the grand jury report, new Turnpike Commission CEO Mark Compton, a former transportation deputy secretary, said he was reviewing the professional services contracts cited in the report, directing employees to read and sign an employee code of conduct and setting up an advisory committee to review contract practices.
The challenge facing turnpike reformers was outlined by an unnamed witness before the grand jury.
"The Turnpike is what it is because the General Assembly wants it to be that way," the witness said. "Over the years, despite all of these disclosures, these audits and newspaper articles, despite all of the desires to make it better, it continues ... the Turnpike is like the Mesopotamia River. All of the animals come to drink here. If you were an engineering firm or a law firm or a consulting firm or whatever, you go to the Turnpike because that is where the money is."