2008-09-24 / Local & State

Pa. Senate Leaders Say Turnpike Lease Dead For '08


HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A proposal to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private group for 75 years will not be approved this year, the state Senate's two top-ranking Republican leaders said Friday.

The senators' revelation is a blow to Gov. Ed Rendell and the plan's other supporters. They had called for speedy legislative action last week after federal regulators rejected a competing plan to raise transportation dollars by tolling Interstate 80.

The turnpike lease plan calls for a $12.8 billion upfront payment to help fund mass transit and transportation infrastructure improvements.

"There is no support for taking it up in this fall session,'' said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, RDelaware. "And we should not rush into such a major policy decision under some sort of artificial deadline.''

He said he "can't foresee any circumstances'' in which the deal would go through the Senate this year.

His position was echoed by Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, the chamber's president pro tempore.

"I believe the plan that's on the table now for the turnpike is a bad deal for Pennsylvania,'' Scarnati said. "I believe it's too low.''

Jim Courtovich, a spokesman for the group that submitted the highest bid, said the offer involved complicated financing and would probably be withdrawn after the second week in October. Despite the senators' remarks, he said the partnership would continue to push for legislative approval.

Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for the Democratic governor, said the turnpike lease should have been a priority in the closing months of the twoyear legislative session.

"Clearly we are disappointed with the senators' remarks, given the crisis that we face in transportation funding, and the concrete bid on the table that now would provide the necessary funding,'' Ardo said.

There have been recent signs of some support in the Democraticcontrolled state House, most notably from Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia.

But Majority Leader Bill De- Weese, D-Greene, said Friday that he "would be more than mildly surprised if action were taken,'' particularly in light of opposition from two of his caucus' leaders on transportation issues: Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Markosek, D-Allegheny, and Majority Whip Keith McCall, D-Carbon.

DeWeese said the state might want to try again for I-80 tolling approval next year after a new president is sworn in.

The Federal Highway Administration said last week that it turned down I-80 tolls, in part because it had questions about whether the amount of money that would be paid by turnpike commission to the state Transportation Department was based on an "objective market valuation'' of the highway.

The turnpike commission would have operated the tolls.

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