Corbett should shift gears on roads and transit funding

Gov. Corbett recently paddled along the Delaware River in a kayak. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )

If Gov. Corbett keeps poking along in the slow lane in deciding how the state should fund critical transportation needs, the costs may include not just crumbling highways and bridges, but motorists avoiding the expensive Pennsylvania Turnpike.

News that the turnpike’s finances are threatening to buckle under $7 billion in debt needed to help pay for road and bridge repairs and transit operations represents a dire development. It should be more than enough to prompt Corbett to action, despite his unreasonable no-tax pledge, which also has forced deep cuts to social welfare programs.

While turnpike officials assure motorists there’s no immediate danger of a shutdown, there’s no doubt the sprawling toll road — along with the toll-paying public — faces unprecedented financial challenges without a new state plan to broaden transportation funding beyond toll revenue.

At some point, the regular toll hikes that have become necessary to fund operations and meet the Turnpike Commission’s annual payment of $450 million to the state Department of Transportation for other projects will become untenable. By January, tolls will have grown by more than 100 percent over a decade.

With more borrowing likely,  and turnpike traffic growth uncertain, state officials simply cannot ignore auditors’ warnings against using the turnpike as a cash cow. Yet under a 2007 law that was supposed to raise $900 million annually for roads, bridges, and transit, that’s exactly the role being played by the toll road.

State lawmakers and then-Gov. Ed Rendell included a sensible plan to toll Interstate 80 as another source of funding, but were thwarted by federal officials’ refusal to approve the plan. That leaves the turnpike bearing the heaviest burden.

Meanwhile, the state is far short of the funds needed to repair thousands of bridges at risk of collapse and to maintain critical mass transit across the state, including SEPTA, first and foremost.

The turnpike remains one of the state’s transportation success stories. It’s well-funded and well-maintained, though historically rife with patronage jobs. Given that success, it makes no sense to risk crippling the turnpike. Just as it’s grossly unfair to keep leaning on turnpike users — with Philadelphia-area motorists paying the most — while much of the rest of the state gets a free ride.

The best strategy would be to bump up the state gasoline tax paid at the pump by a few pennies. Failing that, Corbett could push the still-shelved recommendations of his own transportation task force. That panel viewed a modest increase in vehicle-related fees, and a hike in the wholesale gasoline tax, as a virtually painless solution to a festering transportation-funding crisis.

The turnpike’s plight should give the governor the incentive to act.