Commission OKs Higher Tolls on PA’s State Highways

Wed February 11, 2004 - Northeast Edition

HARRISBURG, PA (AP) The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission on Jan. 20 voted unanimously to raise tolls an average of 42 percent, setting into motion an ambitious plan to replace the entire 63-year-old highway over 30 years.

The first general toll increase in 13 years is supposed to raise $1.1 billion in the next decade to help replace aging bridges, tunnels and interchanges along the 470-mi. highway system, officials said. The most challenging projects will be rebuilding the oldest section of the turnpike from Carlisle to Irwin, replacing bridges over the Allegheny and Susquehanna rivers, and widening some sections in the Philadelphia area from four lanes to six, chairman Mitchell Rubin said.

Turnpike officials have known for years that some of these projects were necessary, said the agency’s chief operating officer, Kevin Longenbach. But tolls were not raised sooner because of a lack of foresight and political will on the part of the five-member turnpike commission, which also was consumed with expanding toll roads in southwestern Pennsylvania, Rubin said.

“It takes a group of people that are committed to that road out there to take this step,” Rubin said after a one-hour meeting in which the board approved the increase.

Commissioner Timothy Carson, who participated by conference call, called it “the only prudent decision we could make.”

The toll increase is scheduled to go into effect Aug. 1 to allow truckers extra time to work the cost into their contracts.

The new tolls would mean an average 42-percent increase for all travelers — 1.8 cents per mile more for passenger vehicles and an average 5.3 cents per mile more for the eight classes of commercial vehicles, agency officials said.

The increase leaves the Pennsylvania Turnpike with higher fees than the Ohio and New Jersey turnpikes and the New York State Thruway, although Rubin contended that those highways are not as old, do not negotiate the same complex and hilly terrain, and that officials there will eventually have to raise tolls.

In addition to revenue from the toll increase, the commission plans to use a $1.6-billion share of current toll revenue and some additional bond issues to raise a total of $3.4 billion for the rebuilding. Total annual revenue would only rise approximately 26 percent because the commission’s staff expects use of the toll roads — estimated at 180 million vehicles annually — to drop initially because of the higher cost.

Overall, the 2,200-employee agency took in $404.5 million in revenue for the fiscal year ending May 31, 2003, mostly from tolls. Of that, $110 million, plus $50 million from reserves, went toward highway projects and maintenance.

Gov. Ed Rendell has supported the toll increase, saying that improving the turnpike will bolster economic development and improve safety. But he also has said that he expects tolls to remain at the same level until at least 2010.

Highway builders say that the injection of construction dollars will mean more jobs for laborers, quarry workers, and heavy equipment salesmen, among others. The agency said that public reaction to the increase has been relatively light and weighted toward an understanding that tolls must increase if the road is to be rebuilt.

The commission approved the increase over the misgivings of a trucking industry representative, who argued that the industry is already caught in a “perfect storm” of increasing costs, such as for health insurance and fingerprinting and doing background checks on truckers who haul hazardous materials.

Higher turnpike costs on top of the industry’s thin profit margins could put some smaller trucking firms out of business, said the representative, Jim Runk of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association.

Runk has suggested ways to “soften the blow,” including phasing in the toll increase — as the Ohio Turnpike did between 1995-99 — offering discounts for using E-Z Pass and traveling in off-peak hours, or deepening discounts already offered to heavy users of the highway.

But Rubin seemed to dismiss such suggestions, saying his way of softening the blow is showing turnpike motorists “that they’re getting something in return for their dollar.”