For Pennsylvania Turnpike drivers, resistance to E-ZPass may not be futile just yet, but it's getting more and more expensive.
Toll increases that will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Sunday will be 12 percent for cash payers and 2 percent for users of E-ZPass, the electronic collection system. It is the fourth straight year in which cash customers are taking a bigger hit, with the overall result being that cash tolls will be nearly 40 percent higher than E-ZPass rates.
Put another way, those who cling to cash rather than subscribing to E-ZPass will pay roughly a dime more for every 3 miles traveled.
A trip in a passenger vehicle across the entire 359 miles of the turnpike's mainline will cost a cash payer $38 westbound and $43.90 eastbound; E-ZPass users will pay $27.24 westbound and $31.38 eastbound.
A trip between Monroeville and Breezewood will cost $12.60 if cash is used; $8.97 with E-ZPass. That's an increase of $1.35 for cash customers and 18 cents for those with E-ZPass.
Heavy trucks will continue to pay more than passenger cars, based on a toll schedule that divides vehicles into nine classes according to weight. The cross-state cash toll for the heaviest trucks is more than $1,500.
Tolls also will rise on most of the other turnpike-operated highways, including Turnpike 66, the Mon-Fayette Expressway and the tolled section of Interstate 376 in Beaver County. Tolls will not change on Turnpike 576, the Findlay Connector.
E-ZPass customers pay a $3 per year service fee and get a transponder to mount on the front windshield. Tolls are automatically deducted from a prepaid account. Turnpike officials want drivers to enroll because cash payments cost five to 10 times more to process, and because E-ZPass lanes can handle four times the traffic volume of a cash lane.
As of last month, 71 percent of turnpike trips were paid with E-ZPass. With plans underway to convert to a cashless system, possibly as soon as 2018, "obviously the goal is to drive E-ZPass enrollment up into the 80s if possible," turnpike spokesman Bill Capone said.
Even those who rarely travel the turnpike, such as families who travel from Western Pennsylvania to the New Jersey shore once a year, can save money and time by enrolling, he said.
The turnpike commission has raised tolls for six consecutive years, after raising them only five times in the toll road's first 69 years of operation. Tolls for cash customers have gone up 92 percent since 2008; E-ZPass tolls have climbed by 38 percent in that period.
The reason: Act 44, passed by the General Assembly in 2007, has required the turnpike to pay $450 million per year to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for non-turnpike uses.
Since the law's inception, the turnpike has paid $4.1 billion to PennDOT, and is required to raise tolls sufficiently to cover the cost of borrowing that money. Some, including former state Auditor General Jack Wagner, have warned that the turnpike is in the fast lane to insolvency, but Mr. Capone said the agency's bond ratings have remained solid.
The recently passed transportation funding bill provides the turnpike with long-term relief, cutting the annual payments to PennDOT to $50 million starting in 2022. Act 44 had required the larger payments through 2057.
Because of the continuing requirement, annual toll increases are likely to continue through 2022 and possibly beyond, Mr. Capone said. Turnpike officials had said from Act 44's inception that annual increases of about 3 percent would be necessary. The increase taking effect on Sunday will generate about 3 percent in new revenue.
In addition to the commitment to PennDOT, the turnpike faces ongoing capital construction needs, as sections of the mainline are more than 70 years old, he said. The turnpike expects to spend $400 million to $450 million per year in coming years on highway improvements, including a planned full reconstruction and widening of the section between Butler Valley and Allegheny Valley.
How much more will you pay?
A toll calculator on the turnpike website allows drivers to compute tolls between any two interchanges on the system. Currently it displays both the existing cash and E-ZPass tolls plus the new rates that take effect Sunday: www.paturnpike.com/toll/tollmileage.aspx.
E-ZPass is available online at www.paturnpike.com or by calling 1-877-736-6727. Customers can buy an E-ZPass GoPak at more than 300 retailers across the state, including most AAA offices and at some Giant Eagle, GetGo and Walmart stores. E-ZPass also is available at vending machines in service plazas. A list of E-ZPass retail locations can be found at www.paturnpike.com/ezpass/sales.aspx.
Jon Schmitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.