Editorial: Pa. turnpike toll hikes are highway robbery

York Dispatch

There’s gotta be a better way.

There’s gotta be a better way to fund maintenance and repairs on the Pennsylvania Turnpike than annual toll hikes that double the rate of inflation.

The state’s Turnpike Commission announced the most recent hike last week: A 6 percent increase at tollbooths that will take place in January.

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But didn’t the commission just increase tolls this year? And last year?

More:Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls to increase on Sunday

Yup. And the year before that. And the year before that. In fact, January’s hike will mark the 11th consecutive year rates will go up along Pennsylvania’s main transportation artery.

The commission blames the endless increases on funding obligations, maintenance and improvements and a 2007 state law that now requires it to funnel $450 million a year to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

During the first three years, the agency forked over a total of $2.5 billion to PennDOT. In fact, according to PA Turnpike CEO Mark Compton, “under that law, the commission has delivered $6.1 billion in toll-backed funding to PennDOT in the last 11 years.”

Requiring the Turnpike Commission to do part of its dirty work is no doubt a convenience for state lawmakers, who like to claim they hold the line on taxes. But, frankly, it doesn’t much matter to motorists whose hand is in their pocket; year after year, they pay more at the tollbooths while their annual income remains flat.

Toll hikes change so often, the Turnpike Commission has created an online calculator to help drivers determine how much they’ll pay from exit to exit, or in the case of those driving across the state, how big a loan they’ll need to take out.

Here’s an easier way to help motorists calculate those costs: Keep them in place for more than 12 months!

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale put his finger on the problem years ago — not that it was all that difficult to identify.

“As my previous audit and my 2013 special report requested by House Speaker Mike Turzai predicted, until legislators in Harrisburg address the $450 million payment the Turnpike must make to PennDOT annually, tolls are going to continue to rise," he said in a prepared statement following the announcement of the toll hike.

“Continue” is right. The commission has previously projected rate increases might be needed through at least 2044.

“If they keep raising tolls,” DePasquale maintained, “middle-class families are going to be forced off the roadway.”

Ya think? Not to mention the increased cost to trucking companies and other businesses that use the 550-mile turnpike network to transport goods.

Clearly, the system is not sustainable. With this year’s budget already in place (amazing how an upcoming election focuses lawmakers) and next year’s toll hikes likewise a done deal, the damage appears to be done for the immediate future. But what about long term?

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DePasquale says his office is auditing both PennDOT and the Turnpike Commission, and he holds out hope the results could provide some relief for Pennsylvania’s overtaxed drivers. That would be nice.

Nicer still would be for state lawmakers to commit to revisiting the 2007 law that all agree is a major cause for the annual rate hikes.

Let the Turnpike Commission take care of the Turnpike. Let PennDOT’s appropriation come from the state budget. And let state lawmakers and PennDOT justify the spending they say is needed for nonturnpike highway repairs and maintenance.