Turnpike to become nation's costliest toll road

E-ZPass customers will get price break over those paying cash

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A toll increase on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in January likely will make it the most expensive long toll road in the nation.

The turnpike commission on Wednesday approved a 3 percent increase for users of E-ZPass electronic fare collection and 10 percent for cash customers, effective Jan. 2.

That will raise the cash cost of driving the turnpike to 8.5 cents per mile, highest of the 11 U.S. toll roads of 100 miles or longer. Currently, the Pennsylvania and New Jersey turnpikes are tied at 7.7 cents per mile.

Get E-ZPass

E-ZPass is available online at www.paturnpike.com or by calling 1-877-Penn-Pass (1-877-736-6727). Some Pennsylvania retailers offer E-ZPass sign-ups at their customer service desks, including Giant Eagle and GetGo. Many of the state's AAA offices offer transponder sales, and there are E-ZPass vending machines called Tag Tellers at select turnpike travel plazas.

Shorter toll facilities, including highway spurs and bridges, typically have higher per-mile costs. A March survey by the Pennsylvania Turnpike found 10 facilities with per-mile rates of 27.8 cents or more, including a 6-mile highway in California whose users pay 45.8 cents per mile.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike has ascended to the top among longer toll roads largely because of a 2007 state law requiring it to help fund non-turnpike transportation programs. Since then, the turnpike has given the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation $2.5 billion to pay for highway and bridge work and mass transit.

That amount is the equivalent of more than three years' worth of turnpike toll income. The turnpike took in $700 million last year.

The law, Act 44, envisioned a stream of revenue from higher turnpike tolls and new tolls on Interstate 80 flowing from the commission to PennDOT.

Despite the Federal Highway Administration's rejection of I-80 tolls this spring, the turnpike is required to pay PennDOT $450 million per year for the next 47 years, and to raise tolls as necessary to meet all of its funding obligations.

That has meant three straight years of toll increases -- 25 percent in 2009, 3 percent this year and the increase approved for January. In its first 64 years of existence, the commission raised tolls only five times.

The smaller toll increase for E-ZPass users marks the first significant discount for electronic payment. The turnpike said two-thirds of its customers use E-ZPass.

"We believe it's essential to encourage more consumers to get E-ZPass," said turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier. "Besides the enhanced convenience for motorists, it's four times more efficient, processing up to 1,200 vehicles per hour compared to 300 per hour in a cash lane.

"Electronic toll collection is also more economical, allowing us to better manage traffic and increase capacity without adding toll-plaza lanes to accommodate growth. Plus, E-ZPass reduces idling at interchanges, which is better for the environment."

Pennsylvania joins several states, including Ohio and Indiana, that offer lower prices for electronic payment.

E-ZPass users prepay their toll charges and mount a transponder on their vehicles. When they pass a tolling point, the fares are automatically deducted from their accounts.

E-ZPass is used in 14 states. More than 20 million transponders have been issued.

The Jan. 2 toll increase will mean that travel from Pittsburgh to Breezewood will cost $9.25 in cash or $8.65 with E-ZPass, up from the current $8.40. Travel from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia will rise from the current $23.20 to $25.55 in cash or $23.90 with E-ZPass.

The increase also will affect tolls on other turnpike-owned highways, including Toll 66, the Mon-Fayette Expressway and a section of the Beaver Valley Expressway. Tolls will not increase on the Findlay Connector near Pittsburgh International Airport.

Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said that aside from the commission's obligations to PennDOT, factors fueling the rising tolls are the highway's age and an extensive capital improvement program that by next year will have widened and resurfaced or rebuilt the turnpike from the Ohio line to the Allegheny Tunnels.

The state's "challenging geography" and weather also contribute to higher construction and maintenance costs, he said.

In addition to the obligation to PennDOT, the turnpike expects to spend $420 million on capital construction, $306 million on operating costs and $298.5 million in debt service.

Mr. Brimmeier, in a statement released Thursday, said "we've done our best to streamline operations and become more efficient, especially after the economic downturn that impacted us as it has every other business.

"The turnpike has 200 fewer employees now than at any time in the past decade, yet we're responsible for more traffic, more highway miles and more investment in our state's ground-transportation infrastructure."

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com.


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