Highway Boondoggles: Pennsylvania Turnpike Expansion

Pennsylvania’s massive project to widen 470 miles of highway could threaten funding for transit services throughout the state. Image: li2nmd, CC-BY-4.0
Pennsylvania’s massive project to widen 470 miles of highway could threaten funding for transit services throughout the state. Image: li2nmd, CC-BY-4.0

In their fourth Highway Boondoggles report, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group profile wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building across the country. Today’s boondoggle: the Pennsylvania Turnpike Expansion. Despite a precarious financial situation that threatens transit systems across the state, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is undertaking a massive highway reconstruction that’s adding lanes and requiring expensive new overpasses as a result.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) is struggling financially, with $11 billion in debt as of 2016. To reduce its debt, some state officials are seeking to end the PTC’s legally mandated annual payment of $450 million to support state public transit — a move that would constitute a major blow to state transit needs. Despite its tight finances, the PTC is undertaking an expensive and unnecessary highway widening across most of the state.

For decades now, the Turnpike has been undergoing a “Total Reconstruction” project with the aim of replacing 470 miles of road — both the 360-mile east-west route across the state, and the Turnpike’s 110-mile northeast extension. The turnpike is America’s oldest superhighway, it requires frequent maintenance, and it has an outdated design. However, the Turnpike reconstruction project is not merely updating road design. Rather, most of the project also entails widening the highway — one new lane in each direction, along with a lane-width shoulder.

Adding new lanes adds cost to the project. Widening the roadway means more asphalt, more right-of-way access, and new infrastructure. For example, overpasses generally need to be replaced to fit over the new highway. One two-mile section of road in western Pennsylvania requires four new overpasses, including two rail bridges. 

The spending decisions made by the PTC have serious ramifications for Pennsylvanians. In particular, the PTC’s increasing debt threatens a number of transit services in Pennsylvania. After years of struggling to fund transit systems, lawmakers passed Act 44 in 2007, later updated with Act 89 in 2013, which require the PTC to provide $450 million in annual funding for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to spend on public transit. 

In the face of increasing debt, some Pennsylvania officials have called to end Act 89 transit payments. Ending those payments, which account for about 12 percent of PennDOT’s financing, could be devastating for transit. For example, the Port Authority of Allegheny County relies on Act 89 money for half of its annual revenue, and has used the money to expand the number of buses and bus routes that it operates. Act 89 funds have also been important to help the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) keep its trains in service in the Philadelphia area. 

  • Jon

    I believe the Turnpike is hoping more lanes will accommodate the traffic needed to pay off the debt, but traffic won’t increase if the tolls keep going up as they have been. Regardless, there’s a lawsuit alleging that the transit payments are unconstitutional, and precedent in New York state shows it may be successful. The gas tax needs to be raised. Better yet, disband the Turnpike and replace all the revenue with gas or mileage tax.

  • Random Nobody

    I won’t argue that the PA Turnpike is old, crumbling, and was often bumper-to-bumper when I’ve driven on it. But any regional planners with brains should be encouraging smart growth and public transit within Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, a couple of America’s great cities. Those should come first. Urban development in those great centers. Those centers drive the tax base of the state. Those centers get people out of countryside and ease pressure on natural ecosystems. The PA Turnpike is used by a lot of people who don’t live in the state. Use your brains, Pennsylvanians.

  • AuggieEast

    Raising the PA Turnpike tolls will just push more travelers to take I-80 across the state.

  • c2check

    Truth. Unfortunately we don’t have regional planning agencies with much leverage. In the Pittsburgh area, the SPC (our MPO) can perhaps have the most impact by leveraging how it spends transportation money, but their leadership/management is still too focused on highways (and the same PennDOT).
    It’s really quite unfortunate considering most of PA’s interesting towns/cities were developed around train lines, and so are quite walkable (and cute)

  • c2check

    Depends on where you’re going/coming from, of course. But it would be cool if we could toll I-80 (and many other highways) too.

  • AuggieEast

    I drove from New England to the Midwest in a truck regularly, yet I’ve never taken the PA Turnpike, to avoid the high tolls.

  • Random Nobody

    PA has a slew of amazing little historic towns.

  • douglasawillinger

    Built with 2 lanes in each direction around 1940, and they took this long to get up a widening project?

  • c2check

    I mean if you’re coming from New England I-80 is closer and just as direct, no?

  • AuggieEast

    It depends on exactly where you are coming from and going to. For example, from Boston to Columbus, taking the PA Turnpike is the shortest route, but not by enough to pay the toll. It’s the same with the NY Thruway. It’s prohibitively expensive in the truck, so even on trips to Chicago where we could just take I-90 the whole way, we still take I-80, I-76, I-71, and Route 30 to save like $100.

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