Lawmakers have unveiled House Bill 1197, which would abolish the PA Turnpike Commission and turn over all control of the turnpike to PennDOT.
The legislation is introduced just weeks after the Grand Jury announced charges against several Pa Turnpike Commissioners for their alleged role in a pay to play scheme, misusing millions of dollars in tax payer money.
The bill was introduced by Representative Donna Oberlander (R-63rd District).
"The legislation I am introducing here today will completely eliminate the outdated and well-documented corruption-infested Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and create the Bureau of Toll Administration within PennDOt," said Oberlander. "The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and the Office of Turnpike Commissioner will be abolished. PennDOT will receive all tolls and other money payable to the commission and take responsibility for all aspects of operations and maintenance."
A similar bill was pushed in 2009 but failed to gain the support needed to pass. Lawmakers say the recent Grand Jury investigation should create some momentum for change.
Representative Mike Vereb (R-150th District) compared the PA Turnpike Commission to a cancer.
"This tumor is beyond radiation. This tumor has penetrated every household in pa. This organized crime must stop. We have to stand up. We have to lead. We have to do it with republicans and we have to do it with democrats," said Vereb
If House Bill 1197 is signed into law, PennDOT must honor all collective bargaining agreements in existence with the PA Turnpike Commission, and any employee organization and union contracts would remain intact.
The legislation also stipulates that the Commonwealth would assume the debt of the outstanding bonds of the Turnpike Commission, which are reportedly more than $7 billion.
"No matter what committee is set up there is only one group of people that are going to pay that debt, and that is the tax payers. It is going to be a lot easier to go to the taxpayers and say here is our plan moving forward and here is the bill we have to pay for. It is going to have to be paid and it is not going to be paid by some private donor," said Vereb.
Lawmakers say the move would save taxpayers money by removing redundancy. According to Oberlander, PennDOT is run by seven executive and manages more than 41,000 miles of roadway. The Turnpike Commission is run by 9 executives and in charge of 545 miles of roadway.
Additionally, Orelander says PennDOT uses internal staff to act as a government liaisons with the general assembly, and the Turnpike commission hires contract lobbyists at a significant cost.
"That is not the way people expect their government and their organizations to use their taxpayer dollars," said Oberlander.
Vereb says four years ago when a similar bill was proposed, they estimated giving PennDOT control would save taxpayers $300-450 million a year.
"We have a reason, we have a goal, we have a mission, and now what we need is some political courage," said Vereb.
Carl DeFebo Jr., Director of Public Relations and Marketing for the PA Turnpike Commission, released the following statement in response to the proposed legislation.
"The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has not taken a position on the proposal to merge operations with PennDOT. However, we understand the need for reform in response to the serious allegations in the grand jury presentment.
It's a fact that the Turnpike began to improve business practices years before these accusations were brought to light, and Turnpike CEO Mark Compton launched even more aggressive reforms in the wake of the investigation to improve accountability and operations.
While the Turnpike and PennDOT operate independently, the agencies are working closer today than at any point in our history. In 2011, we launched an unprecedented effort known as 'Mapping the Future' to enhance cooperation and increase efficiency. This new approach already has saved millions in annually recurring costs and it's just the beginning.
It is important to note the recent contributions the Turnpike has made to the Commonwealth. Our system is being significantly improved through an aggressive, toll-supported capital plan that also boosts the state's economy by creating jobs and investment in local communities. And we are working to improve operational efficiencies through an innovative All-Electronic Tolling project, all while providing $450 million a year to PennDOT for statewide, off-Turnpike mobility projects, to name a few.
We are working hard to earn the public's trust, and this work will continue. Our customers, our employees and our business partners deserve no less."