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Penn. Lawmakers File Turnpike Lease Bill

Pennsylvania lawmakers now have legislation regarding a $12.8 billion, long-term lease agreement on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but it remains to be seen whether Gov. Edward Rendell's privatization initiative will receive legislative approval.

The 75-year concession agreement proposal with Citi and Abertis Infraestructuras moved forward last week as Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, and Rep. Steve Cappelli, R-Williamsport, filed legislation in the House to authorize the transaction.

If passed, the $12.8 billion long-term lease would be the largest privatization of a roadway in the U.S. While General Assembly leaders have yet to announce support for Rendell's P3 transaction, Evans, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, and Cappelli, a member of that panel, back the Citi/Abertis proposal.

"I want a discussion about our options, and this proposal to lease the Turnpike should be in the mix," Evans said in a press release. "Rep. Cappelli and I have the same goal - to find the best way to pay for road and bridge repairs in Pennsylvania and to fund mass transit."

Along with the concession agreement initiative, lawmakers continue to debate the merits of Act 44, which allows the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, which oversees the 530-mile Turnpike, to sell up to $5 billion of special revenue bonds, with no more than $600 million of those bonds to be issued in a single year.

Under Act 44, the PTC - in a public-public partnership - would lease another roadway, I-80, from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, starting with a $750 million payment this fiscal year, and begin tolling the road beginning in the summer of 2010, if approved by the federal government.

In a push to repeal Act 44, U.S. Republican Rep. John Peterson and state Sen. John Gordner, R-Bloomsburg, will hold a press conference today at Pennsylvania's State House to promote keeping I-80 free of tolls.

The Turnpike runs east-west along the southern region of the state from New Jersey to Ohio while I-80 runs parallel to the Turnpike through the state's central region.

Last year, Cappelli voted in favor of Act 44, but is now open to reviewing Rendell's hefty concession agreement.

"We have a crisis in Pennsylvania with regard to funding road and bridge repairs and paying for transit systems," Cappelli said in a press release. "Act 44 is a good proposal, but given the public's objections and the uncertainly of it winning federal approval, I'm willing to look at other ideas, including leasing the Turnpike."

Yet legislators are working under a tight deadline this year as they are currently focused on passing the $28.3 billion fiscal 2009 budget by the end of June. Once the budget is passed, the General Assembly is on break until the third week of September but will recess again one month later for the November elections. In addition, Senate leaders have said the upper house will not reconvene for a lame-duck session after the fall elections.

"And so that means they're meeting eight or nine weeks in the next six months, so the prospects that they [pass the P3 bill] by the end of this calendar year is pretty remote," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

Barry Ciccocioppo, spokesman for the governor, acknowledged that the long-term lease proposal is under a limited time frame for enactment, but said Rendell "continues to talk about it and the need for passage of the legislation."

Along with the legislative breaks that could hinder the initiative's momentum, Madonna said the employment perks that the Turnpike Commission offers lawmakers to dole out to supporters may be hard to give up. If the state were to allow Citi/Abertis to manage the Turnpike, the commission would dissolve as there would no longer be a need for the agency.

"This is a big patronage haven and the Turnpike Commission employs a lot of people and a lot of people who are friends of people, if that makes any sense, and so I think they were additionally reluctant to give it up for that reason," Madonna said. "It's one of the last big patronage havens left in the state."

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