|The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) is not facing any immediate financial crisis as the Auditor General states. The nation’s major rating agencies have not changed their underlying ratings of Pa. Turnpike bonds for more than three years. During that period, the Turnpike has provided more than $3 billion to the commonwealth for statewide investment in transportation systems. Furthermore, the continued existence of the Turnpike Commission is not in jeopardy, as he alleges, because the PTC has developed a sound, fiscally responsible approach to meet all of its financial obligations, including the $450 million annual payments to PennDOT under Act 44. Last June, the PTC approved a funding plan for all of its financial obligations for the next three years.
Auditor General Wagner’s assertion that the commission is in a financial crisis today is simply not true. To the contrary, the Turnpike Commission remains in a healthy financial position because it has taken the steps necessary to ensure its financial stability. The commission — at the same time it adopted its financial plan last summer — included an expanded capital plan to continue to enhance the highways and bridges under its jurisdiction.
Since the first Act 44-necessitated toll increase on the Pa. Turnpike in 2009, we have made it clear to our customers, to elected officials and to citizens of the commonwealth that annual rate hikes are needed to fund the Act 44 debt, as witnessed by wide coverage of that topic in the media over the past few weeks. We have been clear in public statements that the increases will be implemented annually to cover the debt-service cost of the payments to PennDOT.
We agree with the Auditor General that Act 44 funding may have a negative effect on Turnpike traffic, toll rates, customer service and other traveler benefits sometime in the future. We certainly understand that, in the long-term, the funding stream (toll increases) necessary to do so may not easily be sustained, and so subsequent amendments to the funding requirements may need to be considered. However, the PTC remains committed to meeting all its financial obligations — including obligations to bondholders — by sound management of our debt load and by reinvesting in our toll-road system.
To ensure that the commonwealth can continue to provide travelers with adequate transportation infrastructure, easing the Act 44 debt load of the Turnpike Commission is an issue that can only be resolved in a thoughtful, practical manner. The payments we make have become an integral part of the overall funding package needed to keep our state’s roads, bridges and transit systems functioning sufficiently on a daily basis. We also understand that to replace Act 44 payments will necessitate a thorough analysis of available, and attainable, funding alternatives.
We look forward to any opportunity to work with the governor and state legislature to ensure the long-term financial stability of the Turnpike Commission while understanding that, at the same time, there must also be adequate funding to ensure the safe operation of the state’s entire transportation network. As we have over the past 70 years of our existence, this agency stands ready to continue its role as a major funding and transportation partner to the commonwealth.
— Pa. Turnpike Commission CEO Roger Nutt
Auditor General Jack Wagner Says Debt-Ridden Pa. Turnpike Commission's Existence is in Jeopardy
Calls on General Assembly to lift onerous Act 44 funding obligations
HARRISBURG, Pa., Jan. 5, 2012 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Auditor General Jack Wagner warned today that Pennsylvania taxpayers could be on the hook for billions of dollars of additional debt if the General Assembly does not soon amend or appeal Act 44 of 2007, which requires the Turnpike Commission to provide $450 million a year in infrastructure funding to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
Wagner noted that the agency's long-term debt has increased by 181 percent, from $2.6 billion to $7.3 billion, since Act 44 was implemented. Since 2009 the Turnpike Commission's total net assets plunged 997 percent, from a surplus of $156 million to a deficit of $1.4 billion. (Net assets is total assets less total liabilities of an organization. Assets include things such as cash, equipment, investments and buildings and liabilities include things such as accounts payable, interest payable, bonds payable etc.)
Wagner's letter noted that, like the City of Harrisburg and Jefferson County, Ala., the Pennsylvania Turnpike was in danger of becoming financially insolvent and defaulting on its debt obligations. Under Act 44, the Turnpike Commission is required to make annual payments of $450 million to PennDOT for 46 more years without a new revenue source. This annual payment would add at least $20 billion in additional debt to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. If the Commission were to default on the obligations then Pennsylvania taxpayers would be required to assume the Turnpike Commission's debt obligations.
"The statistics show clearly that the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is drowning in debt due to the burdens placed on it by Act 44," Wagner said. "With Pennsylvania facing nearly a half-billion dollar budget shortfall this year, the commonwealth cannot afford to take on any additional debt. Immediate action must be taken to ensure this important state entity can continue to meet its mission to serve Pennsylvania taxpayers with excellent roadway service and to ensure that taxpayers aren't unfairly charged in the process," Wagner said.
The General Assembly passed Act 44 on July 18, 2007, creating a "public-public partnership" between the Turnpike Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to provide funding for roads, bridges and transit throughout the commonwealth. Under Act 44, a Lease and Funding Agreement was entered into by the Turnpike Commission and PennDOT on Oct. 14, 2007 for a period of 50 years, extending until 2057.
The funding agreement required the Turnpike Commission to make scheduled annual payments to PennDOT for funding for roads, bridges and transit. The Turnpike Commission's obligation to pay the annual debt service on any special revenue bonds on a timely basis is also part of its payment obligation under the funding agreement. The funding agreement also gave the Turnpike Commission the green light to toll Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania as another source of additional revenue, pending approval by the Federal Highway Administration.
However, FHWA prohibited the tolling of I-80 on April 6, 2010, leaving the Turnpike Commission with the ability only to raise turnpike tolls and to increase borrowing as the only funding mechanisms for meeting its annual funding obligations to PennDOT.
Wagner said that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Comprehensive Annual Financial Report audit for the year ended June 30, 2011, which was jointly completed by his department and a private accounting firm, shows that the Turnpike Commission will be forced to pay Act 44 debt by assuming additional bond debt, placing a severe negative impact on the Commission's financial position. Wagner said the Turnpike Commission's stated intent to finance its payments to PennDOT solely through the issuance of new debt for the foreseeable future was especially troubling.
The Turnpike Commission's financial position has deteriorated rapidly in recent years, Wagner noted.
In 1998, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission was awarded with the highest bond rating of any turnpike agency at that time by one of three bond rating companies, and by 2008, this same bond rating company downgraded the Turnpike's bond rating stating: we have "raised a caution flag about the Pennsylvania Turnpike's financial future because of the transportation funding bill that the state Legislature passed last summer [Act 44]."
"It is crystal clear that, with the passage of Act 44, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has been placed in a position where its very existence is at risk," Wagner said. "No entity can continue to operate with significant increases in long-term debt and the continued serious depletion of assets caused by Act 44. It is time to rescue the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission by repealing Act 44."
The Turnpike Commission was created in 1937, and is governed by five board members, one of whom is the Secretary of Transportation. In its sixth decade of service, the original 160-mile route has been expanded to over 500 miles, carrying 156.2 million vehicles a year and is funded by multiple sources, including state and federal funds and revenues it generates from turnpike operations.
Auditor General Jack Wagner is responsible for ensuring that all state money is spent legally and properly. He is the commonwealth's elected independent fiscal watchdog, conducting financial audits, performance audits and special investigations. The Department of the Auditor General conducts thousands of audits each year. To learn more about the Department of the Auditor General, taxpayers are encouraged to visit the department's website at www.auditorgen.state.pa.us.
Contact: Steve Halvonik 717-787-1381
SOURCE: Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General