Address Pennsylvania Turnpike ‘leakage’

Altoona Mirror editorial (AP)
Traffic going eastbound on the Pennsylvania Turnpike proceeds through the electronic toll booths in Cranberry Township, Pa., on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. More than $104 million in Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls went uncollected last year as the agency fully converted to all-electronic tolling. Turnpike records show the millions of motorists who don’t use E-ZPass have a nearly 1 in 2 chance of riding without paying under the “toll-by-plate” license plate reader system. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Probably no one with any real understanding or logical suppositions surrounding the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s switch to all-electronic tolling subscribed to the shortsighted notion that the travel entity would not experience serious challenges in ensuring that a superior toll-collection record would be achieved quickly and painlessly.

However, even the most pessimistic skeptics probably didn’t fathom a situation as mind-boggling as the one emanating from an internal turnpike report issued in July: that more than $104 million in tolls went uncollected last year.

The report in question was obtained through a Right-To-Know Law request filed by the Associated Press. Actually, the general public of this commonwealth had a right to see the report without the AP having to pursue access.

This is September. Clearly, if the Turnpike Commission, which is responsible for the toll road’s operation, had intended to make the report’s contents known to the public — to be transparent about them, acknowledging the public interest involved – it would have been forthcoming with the facts within a couple of weeks at most, without a news organization first having to pursue them.

That said, some politicians’ reactions to the report also are bases for important questions and for contemplating an hypocrisy factor.

But first, some of the report’s troubling facts, as reported in just one paragraph of a front-page AP article printed in Wednesday’s Mirror: “Last year, license plates could not be identified in 1.8 million Pennsylvania Turnpike rides, bills were undeliverable in just over 1 million instances, and motor vehicle agencies failed to provide vehicle owner addresses more than 1.5 million times. An additional 6.7 million transactions were marked as ‘not paid.‘”

Also, the problem was detailed broadly in this way: “Nearly 11 million out of the total of about 170 million turnpike rides generated no revenue for the agency in the year that ended May 31.”

Some serious, comprehensive, effective remedial actions are needed — quickly — to resolve what the commission refers to as “leakage,” but which can be described more accurately as catastrophic failure of a dam.

Judging from politicians’ initial reaction to the report, there are grounds for questioning whether there is full understanding of the turnpike’s financial issues. Perhaps the better question is why certain facts regarding the toll road’s financial condition are being ignored conveniently amid the so-called concern being expressed over lost tolls.

For instance, state House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, said the turnpike’s revenue bleed has been a concern of his for years, that the new figures show a need for action, and that the Legislature should do more to pressure the turnpike agency to fix the bleed.

What he did not express was outrage over the fact that the turnpike has been providing hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the state Department of Transportation under a failed plan to impose tolls on Interstate 80.

What he also did not acknowledge was that the turnpike’s indebtedness probably would be a small fraction of what it now is, if the Legislature had ended the subsidization requirement on PennDOT’s behalf immediately when the I-80 proposal failed to materialize.

“Free rides take toll on Pa. turnpike” was the headline over Wednesday’s Mirror article.

Those free rides also are an affront to those paying excessively higher tolls necessary to compensate at least in part for the toll revenue losses.