Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell is a great guy, but he's got it all wrong with this plan to sell or lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private company, the director of Lehigh Valley International Airport said Wednesday.
"It's a stupid idea," George F. Doughty, also a member of the Lehigh Valley Transportation Study coordinating committee, said at a meeting of the transportation-funding group.
"Monetizing" the toll road, as Rendell's proposal has been described, might be a quick way to raise the cash needed to address the state's transportation needs in the short term, but it's a wreck waiting to happen down the road, said Doughty, executive director of the Lehigh Northampton Airport Authority.
"You're going to end up paying 15 percent in profit for the guy operating the Turnpike," Doughty said, suggesting that the state instead should sell bonds -- borrow -- to raise the extra money it needs to repair roads and bridges and operate public-transit systems.
A commission created by Rendell estimated that $1.7 billion a year in new revenue is needed to adequately address those needs, and suggested alternatives to raise the cash.
For his proposal, the governor chose a tax on the gross profits of oil companies, and the sale or lease of the Turnpike, to generate the capital. The Legislature is considering his plan.
Rendell has said that a private operator's Turnpike toll increases and other details could be controlled through terms of the lease. He said the state would not lease the Turnpike unless officials were comfortable with the deal.
But Doughty noted that price controls in such leases tend to last a limited number of years, and in the end, the company will find ways to raise tolls and boost profits.
Considering some of the existing toll-road leases in the United States, Doughty said, a Turnpike sale or lease is likely to cost the equivalent of 15 percent interest over the long term after the controls expire.
By contrast, the state could sell bonds and pay only about 6 percent interest to investors, based on current conditions, he said.
State Department of Transportation official Larry Shifflet said the sale of bonds probably was something the governor's study committee considered, but the group of experts recommended the toll-road lease as one of its options instead.
Doughty was not dissuaded. "It's essentially pushing the crash down the highway," he said. "We're going to have to pay for that debt through tolls."
After the meeting, Doughty said it hasn't been shown that private owners can operate toll roads -- or airports, for that matter -- more efficiently than government, or quasi-government agencies such as the authority he works for.
"The myth is, they'll run it more efficiently," he said, "but that's never been proven." Regarding "monetization," Doughty opined, "It's a good buzz-word, but really we're mortgaging our future.
"The governor's a great guy, but this is a dumb idea," he concluded after the meeting.
A spokeswoman for the governor could not be reached Wednesday for a possible comment on Doughty's statements.
The report on Rendell's proposal was informational, and the Lehigh Valley study group, which helps determine federal and state transportation funding priorities in this region, took no action on it.
The group met at the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission offices in Hanover Township, Lehigh County.
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