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Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls reach highest point on west Interstate 376

| Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, 8:18 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Cars and trucks pass through the Beaver Valley Expressway's Chippewa Toll Plaza, Friday, December 27, 2013. This stretch of Interstate 376 from Chippewa to New Castle will cost cash-paying motorists 20 cents a mile - making it the turnpike's most expensive toll highway.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Cars and trucks pass through the Beaver Valley Expressway's Chippewa Toll Plaza, Friday, December 27, 2013. This stretch of Interstate 376 from Chippewa to New Castle will cost cash-paying motorists 20 cents a mile - making it the turnpike's most expensive toll highway.

Kevin Burns drives the Pennsylvania Turnpike's most expensive toll highway almost every day, using the westernmost portion of Interstate 376 to go from his Beaver home to teach computer classes and visit his mother in Sharon.

When turnpike tolls go up for the sixth year on Jan. 5, cash-paying motorists on the tolled part of I-376 stretching 16 miles from Chippewa to New Castle will pay 20 cents a mile. E-ZPass users such as Burns will pay 13 cents a mile.

“It's an expensive proposition to use it every day, but I look at the convenience of it,” said Burns, 53, a technology education and computer science teacher at Sharon Middle/High School.

The Turnpike Commission does not charge a standard rate along its 556-mile system. In some sections, the per-mile cost is as low as 11.3 cents for cash-paying motorists and 7.8 cents for E-ZPass users, data show.

Turnpike spokesman Bill Capone said the agency's costliest toll highways are its newest ones, including the toll portion of I-376, Turnpike 66 in the Greensburg area, Turnpike 43 (a toll portion of the Mon-Fayette Expressway), and the Findlay Connector near Pittsburgh International Airport that was designed to be the first leg of a future Southern Beltway.

“They were built much later than the mainline and Northeast Extension, so their original tolls were based on a cost of construction that was much more expensive per mile,” Capone said.

The east-west turnpike runs 360 miles through the state, from the Ohio line to New Jersey. The mainline opened in 1940, and the first section of the Northeast Extension in the mid-1950s.

The toll portion of I-376, at least a nickel per mile more expensive than Pennsylvania's other new toll highways, opened in the early 1990s. Officials said at the time that the $243 million project came in on time and under budget.

The toll increases taking effect in January will raise rates about 2 percent forE-ZPass users and 12 percent for cash-paying motorists.

The increases are due in large part to a state law, Act 44 of 2007, which requires the turnpike to annually contribute at least $450 million to PennDOT for road, bridge and transit projects. The increases also will help pay for an ongoing project to widen the mainline turnpike to three lanes in each direction, said Capone.

A $2.3 billion transportation funding package that lawmakers passed in November requires the Turnpike Commission to continue making the payment for eight years, and then the obligation will fall to $50 million annually.

The agency is working to convert to an all-electronic tolling system, possibly by 2018, which would be cheaper to operate, Capone said. Officials have said the move could slash turnpike costs, including wages and benefits for toll collectors, by at least $67 million a year.

The alternative to Burns' costly, 45-minute commute on I-376 would be driving more than an hour on Route 18, a largely two-lane road that winds through rural areas and includes numerous traffic lights in New Castle. Traffic often backs up behind Amish buggies near New Wilmington.

“I don't mind paying my fair share, but I do get upset when scandals arise,” Burns said, referring to the March indictments of eight current and former Turnpike officials for what prosecutors say was a pay-to-play scheme in which contractors' campaign contributions and gifts allegedly helped secure lucrative contracts.

Trials are scheduled in 2014. Turnpike officials say they have made sweeping changes to fight mismanagement and corruption.

Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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