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Huge Turnpike Toll Increase Has Roots in 1985 Highway Bill

Tue April 20, 2004 - National Edition
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ALLENTOWN, PA (AP) The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s 44 percent toll hike coming in August has its roots in a 1985 highway bill that authorized billions in spending on new highway construction and turnpike maintenance.

Act 61, signed into law by then Gov. Dick Thornburgh, authorized 21 new turnpike projects that state officials estimated would cost $4.5 billion, but wound up costing far more than that. And many of the projects have yet to be started, promising billions more in debt in the years ahead, The Morning Call of Allentown reported Sunday.

"When is this going to stop?" said state Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton. "It seems like it’s never-ending anymore."

The turnpike commission voted unanimously in January to raise tolls for the first time in 13 years. The new average rate for cars will be 5.9cents per mile, up 1.8 cents, while the average truck rate increases from 12.4 cents to 17.7 cents per mile.

The increase is supposed to fund a $1.6 billion, 10-year plan to help replace aging bridges, tunnels and interchanges along the 470-mile highway system, officials said.

The increase will leave the Pennsylvania Turnpike with higher fees than the Ohio and New Jersey turnpikes and the New York State Thruway.

The last two toll increases –– a 30 percent hike in 1987 and another 30 percent in 1991 –– also financed Act 61 projects.

Before Act 61, the turnpike, which opened in 1940, had only $65 million left in debt, and borrowing costs consumed only five cents of each dollar in revenue. The cost of financing now takes up 31 cents of each dollar.

Turnpike Chief Executive Officer Joseph G. Brimmeier said road projects are so expensive that borrowing is the only option.

"You can’t do it on a pay-as-you-go basis," he said.

But former Public Utility Commissioner John Hanger, a turnpike critic, said that new highway construction has diverted money from maintenance of the mainline Ohio-to-New Jersey highway.

The turnpike, he said, is building "new roads and it can’t maintain its bridges. That doesn’t seem to make much sense. Most people don’t add new rooms to their homes when the roof is leaking."

Completed Act 61 projects include the expansion of the busy Mid-County toll plaza outside of Philadelphia, the opening of a second Lehigh Tunnel on the Northeast Extension, and the building of two spurs in western Pennsylvania whose traffic volume is only a fraction of what the turnpike commission had predicted.

State Rep. Joseph Petrarca, a Westmoreland County Democrat, is seeking supporters of a bill that would give the Legislature the right to rule on turnpike toll increases. The Legislature currently has no budgetary authority over the turnpike, whose employees report to a five-member commission appointed by the governor and ratified by the state Senate.

But Gov. Ed Rendell supports higher tolls, saying they will fund badly needed improvements and keep the turnpike safe.

"If this increase isn’t done, there’s going to be some huge potential safety hazards in the years to come," Rendell said.