Sick of Pa. Turnpike toll increases? Here’s how and why this is happening
It’s a new year, which means there’s a new toll hike for commuters on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Northeast Extension. Lo and behold, motorists aren’t thrilled.
• I travel the Pennsylvania Turnpike every day for my work. I have seen tolls increase and continue to increase at an alarming rate year after year to support general PennDOT infrastructure. I have reached out to my local representatives questioning if anything can be done. Anyone driving or depending on the Turnpike on a daily basis appear to have their voices go unheard. I also read the truckers association is attempting to sue the Commonwealth over this same issue. I’m hoping you can help bring attention to this important matter and help drive reform. — Tony Molchany, Whitehall Township
As encouraging as I find it to see a reader so well versed on the issues, I’ve got to admit there are few other positives to find from this mess.
A 6 percent toll increase going into effect Sunday will mean drivers traveling between the Lehigh Valley and Mid-County tolls will pay an extra 80 cents round trip for the privilege of the Northeast Extension. The hike won’t be quite as sharp for EZ Pass commuters making the same trip at 62 cents.
But that shouldn’t be a surprise for experienced commuters. Turnpike tolls have gone up every year for the past 11 years. That trend won’t go away anytime soon.
While the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has a poor history of controlling costs — unlike in other East Coast states, its personnel numbers didn’t drop when it rolled out automated toll collectors in 2000 — the current spate of hike increases can largely be blamed on past elected officials.
For most of its lifespan, the turnpike was funded by its own tolls under a “you use it, you pay for it” model. But in 2007, the state faced a mounting wave of costly infrastructure needs. Rather than raise taxes, state legislators decided the turnpike would fund it.
Rendell proposed two separate ideas to make the idea work. One pitch had the state lease the 537-mile superhighway to a private business. The second would have placed tolls on Interstate 80 under the turnpike commission’s control. In anticipation of millions of dollars of new revenue, he signed Act 44 of 2007. The law required the turnpike commission to pay PennDOT hundreds of millions of dollars every year for the next 50 years.
But it was a typical Harrisburg blunder. The state acted before ensuring either option would come to fruition. The next year, the Federal Highway Administration rejected the I-80 toll proposal, citing flaws in the turnpike commission application. A few months after that, a proposed lease of the Turnpike to a Spanish-American consortium for $12.8 billion over 75 years fell through.
That left the turnpike commission stuck holding with a $23.6 billion bill. From where I’m sitting, that looks the state is committing a long-term mugging.
The turnpike commission, and by extension turnpike commuters, will be left owing billion of dollars they have no realistic way of paying off. So far, the turnpike commission has borrowed $6 billion to pay PennDOT $6.1 billion, pilling up an additional $359 million in debt service along the way, according to numbers supplied by Carl DeFebo, a turnpike commission spokesman.
That number will almost certainly increase in the years ahead. The turnpike commission will be required by law to contribute $450 million a year to PennDOT until 2022.
To the state’s credit, it realized it was being unreasonable by forcing the turnpike to pass draconian annual hikes for the next 50 years. Act 89 of 2013, the law best known for jacking up the gas tax, also reduced the turnpike commission’s annual contribution to $50 million between 2023 and 2057.
That cut the full turnpike commission payments to $10.1 billion over the 50 year period. But even with that mark off, the turnpike commission will need to annually raise tolls between 3 percent and 6 percent until 2044.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has been sounding alarm bells on the financial ramifications of this disaster for years. In his last audit of the turnpike commission, his office reported that traveling from Pittsburgh to Valley Forge will cost $94.31 by 2044. And just that’s a one-way trip — I assume this theoretical vacation ends with the family declaring bankruptcy and hitchhiking home.
Worse still, DePasquale’s report found that even with the hikes, the commission can only afford this if you assume the turnpike will see unprecedented growth in vehicles. The turnpike commission needs to see a 215 percent increase in vehicles between 2015 and 2035 to have a chance to meet its budget goals. But if the turnpike gets more and more expensive, more and more drivers will either be forced to use other highways or reconsider how far they’re willing to commute.
“It’s nonsensical. People aren’t going to pay to sit on the turnpike parking lot,” DePasquale said when his 2016 report was released. “The entire projection is simply unsustainable.”
While DePasquale deserves credit for bringing attention to the problem, don’t give him too much. He voted for Act 44 back when he was a state representative.
State legislators have had years to come up with a better plan, but so far they’ve either lacked the vision or fortitude to change course. Instead, I’m thinking their hands will be forced.
Last spring, two special interest groups — one for truckers and one for other motorists — filed federal lawsuits against the state. In the 2017 fiscal year, the turnpike commission collected $1.1 billion in toll revenue when its own operating expenses were just $517 million. By requiring the turnpike commission to raise tolls in order to fund PennDOT projects on different highways, the state violated Constitutional protections on trade and travel, the lawsuits argue.
The special interest groups may have case law on their side. A similar lawsuit in New York succeeded when federal judges found that toll revenue from the New York Thruway was being inappropriately spent to restore the state’s canal system.
The plaintiffs in the Pennsylvania lawsuits have demanded the turnpike commission fork over $5.8 billion in refunds. In case the turnpike commission is forced to make those refunds, its stopped making its quarterly payments to PennDOT. About $225 million in PennDOT payments have been withheld so far, DeFebo said.
In the meantime, I don’t know what to tell you, Tony. These PennDOT infrastructure projects need to be funded, but voters have shown little tolerance for raising taxes. Just ask former Gov. Tom Corbett, who found little support after he hiked the gas tax and limited the strain on the turnpike commission. Dumping the payments on Turnpike commuters was a politically expedient — if politically gutless and legally questionable — solution.