Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Stop the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (and its cousins) before they kill

Corruption and mismanagement at commissions like the Pa. Turnpike is out of control - when will it reach the point where someone is killed?

Stop the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (and its cousins) before they kill

Vehicles are piled up in an accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Bensalem. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Vehicles are piled up in an accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Bensalem. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

I'm not a daily driver of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but like many people in the Philadelphia region I drive it fairly often, enough that I wonder why I'm too lazy to get E-Z-Pass. And since I don't have E-Z Pass, it's hard not to notice how many Benjamins it now takes to drive across Franklin's former stomping group. Indeed, it takes a village ATM to drive from King of Prussia to the Ohio border as I did a couple of summers ago. This isn't my imagination: Last month, cash tolls increased again by 12 percent and they've roughly doubled since 2007 -- the year a state law tapped the Turnpike tollbooths to pay for other highway projects -- with E-Z Pass customers also seeing increases, albeit much more gentle ones.

So you'd have to think with all this cash flowing in, the Pennsylvania Turnpike ought to be the best damn highway in America, maybe in the world. But after Friday morning, you'd have to wonder. The entire Eastern Seaboard has been blitzkrieged with the worst winter weather in years, but with dozens of superhighways dotting our populous region, only one managed to have an 100-car pileup last week. It was the same one that lifted all speed restrictions on a heavily traveled stretch of road even though that stretch was covered with a sheet of ice.

Luckily no one was killed on the Turnpike between Willow Grove and Bensalem...this time. Maybe I'm becoming soft in my old age, but I'n not ready to declare that heads need to roll at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission...yet. However, I am hoping that the proper legislative committees and anyone else with jurisdiction does a full investigation of what happened Friday, that changes are made so this never happens again and that the humans who screwed up -- and clearly there were screw-ups -- are punished.

And there's a much bigger issue here. If this winter has taught us anything, it's that this region -- especially Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York -- has too many unaccountable commissions and authorities, with too much freedom to charge drivers and transit riders too much money but with no accountability when they fail to do the bare minimum -- making their roads and their rails safe to use.

Once upon a time, the system made sense; in the mid-20th Century coming out of the Great Depression, tolls were the only way to float bonds to build the infrastructure that turned America into the world's strongest economy. In fact, the turnpikes, bridges, and tunnels were so successful so quickly they brought in lot of extra quarters, which soon made the authorities that ran them into political patronage havens. To be honest, I don't think the average citizens really minded that much...back when the bridges and the turnpikes actually worked.

Somewhere along the way, however, this disease metastasized. In the 21st Century, these revenue-producing authorities have created scores of do-little six-figure jobs and been warped into economic development tools, as long as the developments benefit wealthy donors and treasured political allies. Today, they've strayed so far from their initial mission that they've lost the thread of even knowing enough to keep cars off a 10-mile Olympic hockey rink of a highway.

The idea of using tolls -- especially on out-of-state passers-through -- to upgrade Pennsylvania's roads isn't a bad idea on paper, but the reality is that the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has been a cesspool of corruption for decades. Have you forgotten that it was less than a year ago that eight people -- turnpike commissioners and workers and contractors -- were indicted in a massive "pay-to-play" corruption scheme? Maybe you have, because over the year's it's been hard to keep track of everyone feeding at the Turnpike trough.

And what about its cousins like the Delaware River Port Authority, or DRPA, which "runs" the PATCO rail line and the Delaware River crossings into Philadelphia? Karen Heller in the Inquirer had a blistering column this morning pointing out that after years of the DRPA investing untold hundreds of millions of dollars in scammy economic development projects that are currently under investigation, the infrastructure repairs that those monies should have paid for are coming home to roost -- with 55 engine breakdowns so far in 2014, smoke-filled stations and gut-wrenching commuter delays.

Then there's the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey...perhaps you've heard of them? You think the Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls are high -- trying search your upholstery for the 13 clams to enter the Holland Tunnel these days. And yet the recent Chris Christie scandals have shown how the bi-state agency became a parking lot for the dubiously skilled political class, funding "economic studies" to aid a project linked to the PANYNJ chairman (a Christie ally) and other allies' projects. Broadly, the massive authority had become a political slush fund that wasn't above an almost certainly illegal act of political retribution at the George Washington Bridge.

Like I said, no one was killed Friday in Willow Grove. Luckily, no one was killed by the political gridlock that tied up ambulance service in Fort Lee. Luckily, no one has been killed by PATCO's fires and malfunctions..yet. How much longer are we going to rely on dumb luck? These toll-driven authorities are structured in such a way that they're impossible to undo, but it's important we start talking about a better way to do this. What worked well in the 20th Century has become an epic failure of corruption and incompetence in the 21st. It's time to put control of our turnpike and bridges back to the citizens.

The people who dig deeper, every January.

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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