John Hanger, a Democratic challenger to Gov. Tom Corbett in next year's election, said this morning he backs an option to fold most of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission's operations into PennDOT following the pay-to-play scandal there.
Folding the turnpike commission into PennDOT would save about $60 million a year by eliminating duplication, said Hanger, who also was the Department of Environmental Protection Secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell and founder of the environmental policy nonprofit PennFuture.
“The operations and employees of the turnpike commission would be under the new management of PennDOT,” said Hanger. “If duplication in managing the turnpike commission is eliminated, Turnpike workers who collect tolls and perform essential daily functions would be protected,” Hanger said in a statement.
The turnpike commission doesn’t have comment on specific bills or proposals to fold it into PennDOT, spokesman Carl Defebo said.
However, the commission and PennDOT have been working together to reduce redundancies and save money where possible and plan to do so into the future, he said. That includes the 2011 “Mapping the Future” project to enhance cooperation and efficiency, as well as collaboration on design and construction standards, joint training programs, annual cost-cutting, and shared maintenance facilities, equipment, and supplies, he said.
Hanger’s announcement touches on a number of political points that could be important in the upcoming gubernatorial campaign, aside from the efficiency of the turnpike.
Hanger mentions protecting workers who collect tolls. The turnpike commission has been actively moving forward with plans for all-electronic tolling at the same time it’s negotiating with its workers represented by the Teamsters union for a new contract. Electronic tolls is likely a key issue in those negotiations, which have been ongoing for two years.
Employees continue to work under the terms of their contract that expired Sept. 30, 2011, Defebo said.
At hand is also the issue of broad transportation infrastructure funding the legislature is considering as part of the 2013-14 budget process. State law requires the turnpike to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars per year to PennDOT.
The turnpike commission has taken out debt and increased rates to help pay for that. If PennDOT absorbs the turnpike, it gets its debt, too, which could impact the state’s bond ratings.
In March, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced charges against former turnpike officials, employees, and company executives involved in alleged theft of million of dollars, bid rigging, and favoritism through gifts and vacations to officials and politicians.
Hanger said folding the turnpike into PennDOT would do away such corruption. He also used the opportunity to chastise Corbett for his acceptance of gifts in the past. The governor’s office has said he complied with the law and there was no wrongdoing.
“The culture of corruption at the turnpike commission is a clear example of why public officials must not accept gifts from people and companies that do business with the state government,” Hanger said.