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Turnpike tolling: Advance, cautiously

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Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012, 9:01 p.m.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission says it's determined to upgrade to 21st-century technology. Hear! Hear! But with a state grand jury investigation of alleged turnpike corruption ongoing since 2009, the modernization should be viewed warily.

A contractor hired in July will implement all-electronic tolling in a five-year project, officials say. Existing toll plazas will be replaced by “gantries” spanning turnpike lanes to automatically deduct tolls from E-ZPass users' accounts and photograph other motorists' license plates to send them bills.

The upfront cost is estimated to be $250 million. But estimated annual savings from eliminating 755 unionized toll collectors, about 100 nonunion toll-plaza workers and the plazas' energy and maintenance costs will be at least $97 million.

That's a welcome counter to the turnpike's growing sea of red ink, despite repeated toll increases that far outpace the rate of inflation.

But all-electronic tolling reminds us of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's withholding tax: You won't readily appreciate what you're paying. And even with voluminous toll-rate signage, costs could fly under the public's radar.

Turnpike operations seldom have been the paragon of openness and “best management practices”; automatic tolls could give the agency cover for more public fleecing.

The turnpike touts the project as bringing greater safety and convenience — no more slowing or stopping to pay tolls — plus reduced emissions from vehicles idling in line. That's fine. But past being prologue, if there's a way to corrupt the system, turnpike officials will find one.

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