EDITORIAL: Answer needed on Turnpike toll spirals

York Dispatch Editorial Board
A 2007 state law requires the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to send $450 million a year to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for non-Turnpike-related road and bridge improvements.

Benjamin Franklin famously noted there were but two certainties in life: Death and taxes. Were he around today, he would no doubt add a third: Toll hikes on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

For the 12th successive year, tolls along the 552-mile artery will rise again in early January — by 6 percent.

The increases, which were approved last July, bring the cost of a cross-state trip for cash-paying motorists to $53.50 — a $3.10 increase. The EZ Pass rate goes up $2.20 to $38.40.

What gives? (Aside from Pennsylvania’s drivers, we mean.)

The culprit, as we’ve pointed out before, is a 2007 state law that requires the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to fork over $450 million a year to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for non-Turnpike-related road and bridge improvements.

More:Motorists will have to pay more to drive on Pennsylvania Turnpike in 2020

More:US appeals court hands truckers defeat in turnpike toll suit

More:Lawmakers urged to fix Pennsylvania turnpike’s fiscal plight

All told, Turnpike Commission CEO Mark Compton told the Associated Press, some $6.6 billion has been transferred to PennDOT in the past dozen years.

And guess what? The annual rate increases are only a third of the way to the finish line. The commission has said it expects to raise tolls every year through 2044.

Let’s be real. Annual toll hikes of three times the rate of inflation for the next 25 years are simply not sustainable. It’s bad enough working stiffs have to dig deeper into their pocket every year simply to commute to and from their jobs. For trucking companies, the annual spikes are becoming downright prohibitive.

Trucking from Valley Forge to Pittsburgh, for example, will cost more than $160, according to Kevin Stewart, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association.

No wonder truckers sued to collect some $6 billion in tolls they claimed were collected illegally because the funds went to infrastructure other than the Turnpike. (A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against them.)

Stewart says the estimated 84,000 truckers who each day roll along the Turnpike, also known as Interstate 76, will soon have no choice but to detour onto non-toll alternate routes. State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has suggested private motorists will follow suit. Just what Pennsylvania’s already chronically congested local thoroughfares need.

To make matters worse, funneling all that cash to PennDOT is setting back maintenance for the Turnpike itself. And it has had a big hand in the Turnpike Commission’s massive debt, which stood at some $11.8 billion according to a March review by DePasquale’s office.

“The idea that motorists and truckers on Interstate 76 are going to be able to pay that entire debt back is literally delusional,” DePasquale said during a subsequent news conference to discuss the findings. “It’s not reality.”

No, it’s not. And too little has been done to address it. This must change.

Toll roads were designed to be just that: highways whose maintenance and upkeep were underwritten by the drivers who use them. They were not intended to become cash cows for statewide roadway improvement. That’s where state lawmakers are supposed to earn their salaries by prioritizing infrastructure maintenance within overall state finances and budgeting accordingly.

Collecting nearly a half billion dollars a year from toll-paying motorists may be convenient for lawmakers but it’s unfair and increasingly unsustainable.

Lawmakers must revisit the 2007 outrage, disconnect the Turnpike Commission from PennDOT and reconnect themselves to fiscal reality.