Rendell: Leases are no threat to highway work

Any lease of the Pennsylvania Turnpike would not endanger funding for turnpike-related projects already in the works, Gov. Rendell said yesterday.

Rendell blasted turnpike officials for suggesting, as reported by The Inquirer on Sunday, that $5 billion in turnpike projects statewide could be threatened by a lease. He said top turnpike officials, who oppose a turnpike lease, were deliberately misrepresenting facts to scare local residents and officials and increase opposition to Rendell's efforts to lease the turnpike.

Rendell wants to lease the turnpike to raise money to repair the state's battered highways and bridges. His financial advisers have said the road could bring $12 billion to $18 billion, more than $1 billion annually for transportation projects.

A Quinnipiac University poll released yesterday found Pennsylvanians about evenly split on the turnpike lease proposal. Voters, 44 percent to 42 percent, said they supported Rendell's proposal to lease the turnpike and keep state control over toll increases and maintenance schedules.

Rendell said yesterday that all projects in the turnpike's current 10-year capital plan were protected by language in bond documents and would also be protected in any leasing legislation. The state committed to building those projects when it raised turnpike tolls 42 percent in 2004, Rendell said.

"I want to assure everyone . . . we intend to honor that commitment," Rendell said.

The projects include:

I-95 Interchange. A long-awaited, $1 billion connection between the turnpike and Interstate 95 in Bristol Township.

Northeast Extension widening. A 10.5-mile, $350 million widening between the Mid-County and Lansdale interchanges.

Bensalem-Philadelphia Park ramps. A $10 million addition at the South Neshaminy service plaza to provide direct access from the turnpike to PhiladelphiaPark casino and racetrack.

Valley Forge-Downingtown widening. The addition of a lane in each direction on the turnpike from Valley Forge to Downingtown.

Route 29-Great Valley ramps. A $50 million interchange between the Valley Forge and Downingtown exits to provide easier access to Route 29.

Norristown Mini-Interchange. A $45 million interchange in Plymouth Township between Ridge Pike and Conshohocken Road to provide direct access to Lafayette Street.

"Our turnpike officials know there is no chance any of our projects will go down the drain," the governor told reporters in a Center City news conference yesterday. "If anything, they will be done faster and more cheaply" by a private company that leases the turnpike.

"The Turnpike Commission has every right to advance its own proposals" for monetizing the turnpike, Rendell said, but "they do not have the right to deliberately mislead and scare people."

Joe Brimmeier, chief executive of the Turnpike Commission, said in a statement, "I feel terrible about the result of these poor communications. The governor and I have always had a great relationship, and I have no further comment until I personally talk to the governor."

Paul Bartle, Montgomery County's Redevelopment Authority chairman, said yesterday he was "very glad" to hear that the Norristown mini-interchange project, scheduled to begin in 2011, appeared to be safe. But he said he was not taking anything for granted.

Securing the interchange for Norristown "is a worry I'll always have until it's done," he said.

Rendell's assurances also were eagerly received in Chester County, where construction of the Route 29 ramp is scheduled to start this fall.

"All right! Fantastic!" said Michael Herron, head of the Transportation Management Association of Chester County, a nonprofit group that advocates for transportation improvements.

He said the Route 29 slip ramp "is incredibly important" for attracting more companies to the region.

The Quinnipiac University poll released yesterday showed little change in popular sentiment about leasing the turnpike. A Quinnipiac poll released March 28 found Pennsylvanians in favor, 49 percent to 41 percent.

"Everybody's first instinct is to be against it; don't lease out one of the state's most valuable assets," said Clay Richards, the poll's assistant director. "But you have to believe the governor has sold some people on the economics of the move."

(The poll of 1,318 Pennsylvania voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.)

Also yesterday, the chairman of the state House Transportation Committee proposed a number of changes he said would improve accountability and efficiency in the state's transportation system.

Rep. Joseph Markosek (D., Westmoreland), an opponent of leasing the turnpike, suggested:

Replacing the Turnpike Commission, which has five directors all appointed by the governor, with a seven-member Transportation Finance Authority made up of three gubernatorial appointees and four legislative appointees to control all toll roads.

Reducing the number of Pennsylvania Department of Transportation maintenance districts from 11 to three.

Creating three new auditor positions to oversee PennDot, SEPTA, and the Port Authority of Allegheny County.

Restructuring the transit funding formula to require additional local funding for transit agencies.

Requiring that all new hires for PennDot and the Turnpike Commission to go through the civil service commission process.

Markosek, who said bills would be introduced in the next few weeks, offered no indication of the costs - or savings - associated with his plan. Nor did he offer any proposals on how to pay for it.

Markosek said he envisions a "mosaic" of funding forms, but said it was "premature to get more specific."

Turnpike Commission spokesman Carl DeFebo said the commission had no response to the proposal.

Rendell's spokeswoman, Kate Philips, said some of the proposals appeared to have merit but did not address the funding implications.

"We have seen an overview of the plan, and at first glance there are some good ideas for reform, without any plans for payment," said Philips.


Contract staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Diane Mastrull contributed to this article.