Pig in Turnpike Poke?
The Turnpike Commission says it is planning to build a 12.5 mile extension of the Southern Expressway at a "projected" cost of $633 million. Projected being the operative word. The final actual cost could end up if unexpected contingencies arise during construction. Of course, if there were no prevailing wage requirements, the project could cost a lot less.
Here’s the rub. Funding sources have not been fully identified although borrowing is likely to be a major component. Amazingly, the Turnpike spokesperson says no toll revenue will be used to repay any borrowing. What then is the revenue source to repay loans? Is the Turnpike expecting it will not have to pay its debts? Is the Turnpike counting on state or Federal grants to cover its debt costs?
When a toll road is built, it is built on the assumption that tolls will cover most of the cost. If tolls are not projected to be adequate to cover the cost of construction and maintenance, then the Turnpike will have to shift revenue from other parts of the Turnpike system to cover the costs. An extension costing $633 million would have to generate about $25 to $30 million at a minimum to repay debt and operate and maintain the road. At a toll of $5 per vehicle, the road would have to carry 6 million vehicles per year or 16,400 per day. The existing Southern Expressway is carrying about 5,000 per day. Can we reasonably expect to triple that number any time soon on the extension? And if a big share of the extension traffic is movement within the extension boundaries congestion might not be reduced appreciably on the Parkway or I-79.
The Turnpike is heavily burdened by existing and future debt as it is forced by legislation to borrow $450 million per year to turn over to PennDOT. The result is escalating main line Turnpike fees. Of course, the state desperately needs the Turnpike revenue to fund maintenance and operations on state highways now and even with those funds does not have enough to cover needed bridge and highway repairs and upgrades. How would the state possibly be able to divert hundreds of millions to a new road?
As someone wisely observed when looking at situation like this, "something about this does not feel right." Let’s hope the Turnpike planners come with better answers to key questions.
Building the extension by the Turnpike is on its face a good idea but only if the road will pay for itself. The Turnpike is no position to acquire a lot of additional debt beyond what is currently mandated to do. On the other hand, the extension might be built by PennDOT but only after a full and plausible explanation of how benefits will exceed costs with benefits heavily dependent on new tax revenue to the state and local governments arising from net expansion of economic activity in the area attributable to the road.