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Pa. Turnpike May — Or May Not — Be Headed For Financial Calamity, Lawmakers Told

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(Pennsylvania auditor general Jack Wagner testifies before a joint hearing of the Pa. House and Senate transportation committees.  Credit: Tony Romeo)

(Pennsylvania auditor general Jack Wagner testifies before a joint hearing of the Pa. House and Senate transportation committees. Credit: Tony Romeo)

(Capitol dome, Harrisburg, Pa.   File photo) Tony Romeo
  Tony Romeo is Harrisburg bureau chief for KYW Newsradio...
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By Tony Romeo

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CBS) — Pennsylvania lawmakers were painted two completely divergent pictures of the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s financial condition today.

During a joint hearing of the state House and Senate transportation committees, state auditor general Jack Wagner was breathing fire as he testified that the Pennsylvania Turnpike is on the verge of being crushed by mounting debt.

“The turnpike, quite frankly, isn’t going to survive if this continues,” Wagner told the legislators.

He says a 2007 law requires the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to borrow money for roads and mass transit, and he says the agency’s long-term debt now tops $7 billion.

But commission CEO Roger Nutt and other turnpike officials say that’s part of a plan to increase debt now and reduce it later, as tolls increase.

“The commission is not facing a financial crisis,” Nutt said.

And PennDOT secretary Barry Schoch calmly explained that the turnpike is following the plan laid out in the 2007 state law, “which is to run the debt up and then, as the tolls increase, it comes back down. It certainly does mean an increase every year.”

Schoch and other turnpike officials say as proof that there’s no financial crisis, demand for bonds issued by the Turnpike Commission remains strong, as has the agency’s bond ratings.

State representative Michael McGeehan (D-Phila.), ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, says he doesn’t know what to think.

“My head is spinning — is there a crisis or isn’t there a crisis?”

Lawmakers say they’ll have to have another hearing to figure out just what the real financial picture of the turnpike looks like.

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