WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- With the distinction of being the oldest toll highway in the United States, the Pennsylvania Turnpike at 70 years old is showing its age, and the traveling public is taking notice.
Coupled with deteriorating road conditions, a recent series of state-mandated rate hikes now make the highway one of the most expensive toll roads in the nation.
A study published in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had the turnpike atop the list of costliest roads.
The turnpike system, which includes an east-west thoroughfare across the state and the Northeast Extension -- Route 476 that connects Northeastern Pennsylvania with the Philadelphia region -- is a key route for Luzerne County commerce.
The extension has a number of exits in the region: the Pocono exit; the Wilkes-Barre/Bear Creek exit; the Wyoming Valley exit in Pittston Township; the Keyser Avenue exit by Taylor/Old Forge; and the Clarks Summit exit.
State Sen. Lisa Baker said the high fares and poor road conditions unfairly impact business development in NEPA.
"We need to re-address the entire transportation system," Baker said. "I'm working with a number of people in Harrisburg to see that this is effectively handled to level the playing field."
A recent survey by trucking industry media service, Overdrive Magazine, once again puts Pennsylvania roads at the top of its "Worst Roads" list for the third time in the last decade.
"I avoid the PA Turnpike whenever I can, because it's too expensive," said long-haul trucker Eddie Haun of Cincinnati, Ohio, who stopped at the Skyliner Truck Plaza in Dupont recently for gas. "What in the world's going on with that road? I mean that stretch of highway between Allentown and Philly is like a cow path."
"I drive exclusively for Smucker's out of the Cincinnati area," Haun said. "If I'm forced to take the turnpike and pay the higher toll, the cost gets added to the freight tariff and just trickles down to the consumer in the end."
After years of relatively stable toll rates, Turnpike Commission Chief Engineer Frank Kempf said hikes in recent years are in line with a commission decision to make a historic capital investment in surface and infrastructure improvement and bridge replacement projects along the east-west corridor and northeast extension portions of the highway.
"We spent over $400 million in capital investment in 2011 and are projected to spend another $600 million in 2012," Kempf said. "When the turnpike was built in 1940, it cost about $1 million per mile; today that number is closer to $30 million."
He noted the recent $101 million Lehigh River Bridge replacement project in Carbon County on the Turnpike's Northeast Extension as an example of their commitment to improving turnpike road conditions.
Kempf said that at the time the turnpike was originally constructed, it was a state-of-the-art roadway, but that over time ii became outdated in terms of infrastructure and design.
"Most of our maintenance went toward seasonal resurfacing and stop-gap repairs," Kempf stressed. "We are completely redesigning the turnpike to today's stringent standards and that's really expensive."
According to Kempf, Pennsylvania's harsh winters, salt usage and varied topography make Pennsylvania unique.
"We've got mountains, rivers, swamps and forest from border to border," Kempf said. "It adds enormously to construction costs."
"I have to say that I -80 in Pennsylvania is getting better," said Barbara Cederburg, a trucker from Fort Worth, Texas, who travels the road with her dog Gigi.
"But I'm told by dispatchers to avoid the turnpike when I'm traveling through Pennsylvania and that generally makes for an interesting ride because the rest of the roads go from bad to worse," she said.
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Information from: Times Leader, http://www.timesleader.com