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Turnpike Commission's 'Our way or the highway' approach won't pacify this driver

| Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Labor Day weekend is almost here and some of you are probably planning a road trip or mini-vacation.

In plotting a recent road trip to Brooklyn, N.Y., I determined taking the Pennsylvania Turnpike would make the trip shorter than going across Interstate 80 by about a half-hour.

I-80 is toll-free. Traveling alone, a half-hour more is no big deal.

Having two potential time bombs in the form of your infant and toddler in the back seat, however, tends to change one's perspective. Any number of things could go wrong: nuclear diapers, regular requests for chicken nuggets, and the crying for no reason that can make a six-and-a-half hour drive an eternity.

Of course, the first thing you want to do before driving the 'pike is make sure you have the money to do so. Would I need to drain our bank account, I wondered, or would my firstborn's arm and leg suffice?

Turns out the rates are now up 10 percent over last year if — like me — you don't have E-ZPass. My one-way cost to the Carlisle exit would be $17.25. The same trip this time next year will cost me another 12 percent on top of that.

Pennsylvania is a nice-looking state and all, but come on!

Let's strip this down to what it really is: Cash-paying drivers have to pay 10 percent more to drive on the Turnpike as punishment for not making it as easy as possible for the commission to collect your money. The commission's ultimate goal is to phase out cash tolls and thereby the employees it pays to collect said tolls.

Turnpike Commission spokesman Carl DeFebo said the rate hikes are necessary under a state law that requires it to give $450 million from turnpike revenues to PennDOT for maintenance of other roads across the state, including the state's share of I-80 maintenance. He also told me that I'm basically right about the punishment thing.

“The E-ZPass is the cheapest way to collect tolls,” DeFebo said. “It costs $1 per transaction for cash. … E-ZPass is about 20 cents per transaction.”

The plan, DeFebo said, is for the turnpike to switch to an all-electronic system by late 2018.

So what happens then, when cash payers aren't around to absorb these extra hikes? DeFebo said the commission is considering two other options that would allow users to also pay through an account that would go through a vehicle's license plate. If a car doesn't have this account or a transponder, then license plates would be photographed as they passed through toll plazas. A bill would be mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle. With this plan, he said, those receiving bills by mail would be assessed the brunt of potential rate hikes.

There is another option that might help. The commission could make sure that turnpike VIPs, including some employees, contractors and some state officials, aren't driving the turnpike free. While everyone else is throwing limbs at the toll takers, nearly $8 million in tolls went uncollected from those special drivers between 2007 and 2011.

DeFebo acknowledged that this so-called non-revenue benefit for some is under review.

“We agree that something needs to be done,” he said. “But it's not a driving factor.”

You know what is a driving factor? Having money to eat and, someday, pay for college. Guess this is why God made pacifiers.

Nafari Vanaski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8669, nvanaski@tribweb.com.

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