Turnpike Critics Say Switch Would Reduce Patronage

Article excerpt

Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission critics say the agency's planned conversion to all-electronic toll collection could alter one of the state's last bastions of political patronage jobs.

"I don't think it will get rid of patronage hiring at the turnpike, but certainly it will reduce the number of patronage jobs available," said Nathan A. Benefield, director of policy analysis at the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative policy group in Harrisburg.

Turnpike officials said the switch to electronic tolling within five years is designed to reduce spending, not patronage. A study released last spring predicted the move could slash toll collection costs -- mostly wages and benefits e_SEmD at least $67 million a year. The agency's operating budget is $326.7 million this fiscal year.

Acting Turnpike CEO Craig Shuey did not answer questions about patronage and the agency's five commissioners either could not be reached or did not return calls.

But in an interview this month that touched on long-standing allegations state officials use influence to get jobs for friends and family, the turnpike's recently hired Compliance Chief David A. Gentile said, "I don't attach a great deal of substantive merit to those type of allegations. In any organization there is some type of favoritism shown and patronage. As long as employees are performing their duties responsibly and productively, I don't care how they got here."

At least one former turnpike official makes no apologies for using his influence to help dozens of people get jobs over two decades, including his son and a former landscaper.

"I'm proud of it. I don't condone anyone getting a job and not doing the work, but most of the people I referred have gone on to do good work and have been exemplary employees," said former Commissioner James Dodaro, 68, of White Oak.

The turnpike has more than 621 toll collectors earning between $19.56 and $22.69 an hour.

Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said some could remain with the agency in other capacities after the agency moves to all-electronic tolling.

The turnpike expects to pay $250 million to replace toll booths along the 553-mile system with overhead gantries. Equipment on the gantries will read E-ZPass transponders in the vehicles of customers driving beneath and electronically deduct tolls from their prepaid accounts. …